HARARE, Zimbabwe—Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire was charged in court on Jan. 17 with subverting the government, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail, after violent protests this week that were met by a brutal crackdown from security forces.
Mawarire was arrested Jan. 16 and initially charged by police with the lesser crime of inciting public violence after social-media posts encouraging Zimbabweans to heed a strike call by the biggest labor union.
The charge sheet accused him of coercing workers to stay away from work and encouraging civil disobedience.
Mawarire’s lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, denied that he had incited violence. The court ordered Mawarire to be kept in detention and adjourned the pre-trial hearing until Jan. 18.
Authorities have said three people died during the protests, which mostly took place in Zimbabwe’s two biggest cities, Harare and Bulawayo. Rights groups say the toll was much higher.
Strike and Roadblocks
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government decreed a 150 percent hike in fuel prices last weekend, which triggered the three-day strike, during which protesters barricaded roads with rocks and burned tires and looted shops.
Two opposition legislators were charged with inciting public violence in Gweru, 280 km (175 miles) west of Harare. They were denied bail and their trial will start on Jan. 18, lawyers said.
Britain, the former colonial ruler, summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador in London. Africa minister Harriett Baldwin said Britain condemned the violent behavior of some protesters, but was “deeply concerned that Zimbabwe’s security forces have acted disproportionately in response.”
Police rounded up 600 people this week in a crackdown on protesters. A doctors’ group said 68 people had been treated for gunshot wounds.
Lawyers from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights are representing more than 130 people, including Mawarire, who rose to prominence as a critic of former strongman Robert Mugabe and led a national protest shutdown in 2016. He was tried on similar charges in 2017 but was acquitted for lack of evidence.
By MacDonald Dzirutwe