Wild celebrations as court frees #ThisFlag Evan Mawarire
By Hopewell Chin’ono and Norimitsu Onishi | New York Times |
A pastor who has emerged as a leading voice against the government of President Robert Mugabe was freed on Wednesday after a court ruled that the state’s efforts to increase the severity of the charges against him were unconstitutional.
The pastor, the Rev. Evan Mawarire, 39, who spent one night in jail after being arrested on Tuesday, walked out of the Harare Magistrates Court in the evening as cars honked and hundreds of people holding candles cheered in celebration.
With a Zimbabwean flag draped around his neck, Mr. Mawarire sounded defiant, telling the crowd, “Let’s remain resolute.”
The authorities had arrested him the day before and charged him with inciting public violence. But on Wednesday morning, prosecutors tried to charge him with attempting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government, a far more serious charge that would have made it more difficult for Mr. Mawarire to be released on bail.
Judge Vakayi Chikwekwe ruled that the move by prosecutors was unconstitutional, explaining that the state “did not inform the accused of the charges he was facing at the time of his arrest.” As Mr. Mawarire was released on a technical matter, he could be arrested again on the same charges.
The government, which has been facing growing unrest because of Zimbabwe’s failing economy, appeared anxious about Mr. Mawarire’s increasing influence. About 100 police officers in riot gear surrounded the courthouse during the day as hundreds of supporters, many singing and dancing, waited for the ruling. At one point, about a dozen officers armed with AK-47 rifles entered the courtroom and stayed for about 20 minutes.
A Pentecostal pastor, Mr. Mawarire rose to prominence in April after uploading a video in which he wrapped himself in a Zimbabwean flag and railed against the country’s corruption and poverty. Mr. Mawarire began a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #ThisFlag, which further increased his profile.
His social media campaign drew widespread support online but was initially ignored by the authorities.
But last Wednesday, in the country’s biggest popular act of defiance in a decade, Harare, the capital, and other cities were shut down after Mr. Mawarire and other leaders urged Zimbabweans to stay home as to protest Mr. Mugabe’s government.
Civil servants, who make up 90 percent of workers in Zimbabwe’s formal economy and many of whom had not been paid their June salaries, were paid in subsequent days.
The payment of the salaries appeared to have taken some of the pressure off the government. Despite a two-day strike that Mr. Mawarire and others had called for this week, most people arrived for work in central Harare on Wednesday.
On the day that Mr. Mawarire was arrested, the government had also warned that workers choosing to stay home would face the “full wrath of the law.”