A Zimbabwean preacher leading the biggest protests against President Robert Mugabe in a decade was arrested and charged with inciting public violence but urged activists in a pre- recorded video to go ahead with demonstrations planned for Wednesday.
Baptist minister Evan Mawarire – who has issued a series of online videos tapping into mounting public anger over corruption, high unemployment and economic woes – has since April become the face of a popular social media movement.
“Yes, he has been arrested for inciting public violence and disturbing peace,” his lawyer Harrison Nkomo told Reuters, adding that police were searching Mawarire’s home in Harare.
Mugabe, Africa’s oldest leader at 92, has led the former British colony since independence in 1980, during which time it has slid from being one of the continent’s most promising countries to an economic basket case with a reputation for rights abuses.
Human rights lawyers said the law under which Mawarire had been charged carried a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba was not immediately available to comment on the charges.
Mawarire had earlier been summoned by the police criminal investigations department but had said he had not broken any law.
Mawarire called a one day shut-down protest last week that closed businesses across the southern African nation, the biggest strike action since 2005.
More protests were planned on Wednesday and Thursday as part of his #ThisFlag movement – a reference to a reflection on the colors of the national flag during one of his talks.
Zimbabweans’ use of the Internet in recent weeks to mobilize street protests have bypassed traditional opposition parties.
In a pre-recorded video posted on #ThisFlag after he was charged, Mawarire said his arrest should not stop Zimbabweans going ahead with demonstrations.
“No matter what has happened to me, you and I have done well, we have stood up and raised our voices to build this nation,” Mawarire said.
Last Friday police summoned and arrested Prosper Mkwananzi, spokesman for social media group Tajamuka (We refuse), on charges of public violence. Mkwananzi was released on bail on Monday.
Mawarire has become a household name among Zimbabwe’s 13 million people since starting his #ThisFlag campaign this year, with some even likening him and his adherence to non-violence to Indian anti-colonial hero Mahatma Ghandi.
“There is nothing wrong from learning from the people like Gandhi because they achieved a lot of things in pushing the non-violent aspect of things,” he said in an interview this month with the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper.
“If we fight violence with violence, the result will be more violence,” he said. “There comes a time when we have to use a different strategy to that being used by the people we are confronting.”