Zimbabwean pastor behind anti-Mugabe protests arrested in Harare

Evan Mawarire detained at airport after returning from six-month exile in New York

Zimbabwean pastor and anti-government activist Evan Mawarire, pictured in July 2016, who has been arrested on his return Harare after spendig six months in the United States. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Zimbabwean pastor and anti-government activist Evan Mawarire, pictured in July 2016, who has been arrested on his return Harare after spendig six months in the United States. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

 

A Zimbabwean pastor whose online calls for action against president Robert Mugabe’s regime last year sparked widespread anti-government protests has been arrested at Harare International Airport on his return from exile.

A number of videos of Evan Mawarire in handcuffs at Harare’s main police station were posted to Facebook late on Wednesday. In the clips he is in the company of a lawyer and police officers can be seen in the background.

The pastor had flown back to Zimbabwe earlier that day after spending more than six months in exile in the US. He had fled there after being subjected to continual harassment by security forces for organising a successful nationwide stay-away from work last July.

Soon after that action he was arrested on charges of trying to overthrow the government, but they were dismissed by Harare’s high court. Within weeks of being released from custody he went to the US with his pregnant wife and two daughters.

In one of Wednesday’s short videos Mr Mawarire can be seen saying to camera: “Unfortunately I’ve been arrested. We will get through this. This is home for me. I’ve committed no crime and I’m allowed to come back home.”

Mr Mawarire’s legal counsel, Harrison Nkomo, has confirmed the arrest to reporters. He said his client had been charged with subverting a constitutionally elected government, an offence that carries up to 20 years in prison.

New York assembly

Mr Mawarire is accused of organising Zimbabweans “to converge in New York to confront the president of Zimbabwe”, according to a police statement seen by his lawyer.

Apparently this relates to his role in organising anti-Mugabe protests during the UN general assembly last September.

The 39-year-old first came to the public’s attention in April 2016 after posting a number of videos on the internet in which he lamented the state of politics and the economy in Zimbabwe, and called for Mr Mugabe and his government to step aside for the good of the nation.

Using #ThisFlag as his handle on social media, and wrapping the Zimbabwean national flag around his shoulders during his video addresses, he quickly gained a cult following among Zimbabweans desperate for regime change.

Few people in Zimbabwe were aware that Mr Mawarire, who was criticised for leaving Zimbabwe after drawing so many people to his cause, had decided to return home.

In an interview with the Daily Maverick news website prior to flying back to Zimbabwe, Mr Mawarire said he was now considering running for office as an independent in next year’s general election, although he did not say for which position.

Mr Mugabe, who is 92, has vowed to run again for the presidency, which he has held since 1980.

Amnesty International has called for Mr Mawarire’s immediate release, saying the charges were “absolutely ridiculous”.

The human rights body insisted the new charges, coming after similar charges of which Mr Mawarire was acquitted, were “designed to make him stop his human right activism and to punish him for speaking out”.