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'ThisFlag' opposition leader arrested in Zimbabwe

July 12, 2016

One of the organizers of the biggest protests in Zimbabwe in years has been arrested and charged with inciting public violence. Pastor Evan Mawarire is at the forefront of the "This Flag" movement.

Evans Mawarire Demonstration Harare
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T.Mukwazhi

One of the leaders of the "ThisFlag" shutdown protest movement, Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, was arrested on Tuesday and charged with inciting public violence, his lawyer said, adding that he may appear in court on Wednesday.

"[Mawarire] has been charged with inciting public violence," his lawyer Harrison Nkomo said after the Baptist pastor reported to a police station in central Harare, where he had been summoned for questioning. "The police searched his house and office this morning," Nkomo said.

Mawarire was at the forefront of the protests last week which closed down businesses, shops and schools. Public transport and some government departments and courts stopped working. The shutdown was sparked by the use of tear gas and water cannon by security forces to disperse protests outside Harare after police officers were accused of using roadblocks to extort money from motorists.

Evan Mawarire Demonstration Harare
Mawarire's lawyer said police seized his mobile phone after property searches came up emptyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T.Mukwazhi

Further shutdowns have been planned for Wednesday and Thursday to protest the worsening economic situation, the opposition to the regime of 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe announced. Mawarire said in a video posted before his arrest: "Whenever we protest: no violence, so we are pushing ahead Wednesday 13 and Thursday 14 July."

"We are pushing for a 'stay-away' [shutdown] because there is nothing else we can do for the government to listen to us," Mawarire said in the video.

A severe drought has left millions in the country hungry at the same time that banks have run short of funds, government salaries have not been paid and some imports have been banned.

#ThisFlag: The man behind the hashtag that shut Zimbabwe down

Protest launched on social media

In April, Mawarire posted a video on Facebook attacking state corruption and the government's failure to provide basic services. He wore a Zimbabwean flag in the video, which led to the naming of the campaign "ThisFlag."

The director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Okay Machisa, questioned the arrest: "He has done nothing wrong," he said. "It is within his right to protest peacefully. The police should be protecting him."

On Sunday, Information Minister Christopher Mushow said that authorities were watching "all those who abuse social media to provoke trouble in the country." The government warned anyone sharing "subversive" material would be arrested.

There have been years of economic decline, allegedly rigged elections, and mass emigration since Mugabe took power in 1980, when the country won independence from Britain.

jm/msh (AFP, AP, LUSA)