Zimbabwe activist pastor seeks bail as hundreds face trial after protests

Activist Pastor Evan Mawarire is taken into a vehicle by police outside his home in Harare, Zimbabwe, on January 16, 2019. [Photo, Reuters]

Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire will ask the High Court on Wednesday to free him on bail after his detention on subversion charges following violent protests over a fuel price hike that sparked a brutal security crackdown.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa promised action on Tuesday in response to a widely condemned clampdown on civilians in which at least three people were killed and scores wounded during unrest ignited by his decision to raise the price of fuel by 150 percent.

Zimbabwe’s Human Rights Commission accused security forces of systematic torture, offering the starkest indications yet that the country was reverting to the authoritarian rule that characterized Robert Mugabe’s 37 years in power. Mugabe was forced from office after a coup in November 2017.

Residents in two Harare townships and a neighborhood in the second city, Bulawayo, said patrolling soldiers beat up residents on Tuesday night, continuing a trend seen since the protests started. Armed soldiers are providing security for a subsidized state bus service.

Mawarire, who rose to prominence as a critic of Mugabe and led a national protest shutdown in 2016, is charged with subverting the government and inciting public violence. He faces 20 years in prison if convicted.

He was tried on similar charges in 2017 but was acquitted for lack of evidence.

His lawyer, Tonderai Bhatasara, said a judge was due to hear the case at the High Court from 9am on Wednesday. Mawarire was not expected to attend the hearing.

A lawyers’ group expressed concern that the courts were denying bail to anyone charged with public violence and, in some cases, were fast-tracking trials, threatening the right to fair hearings.

As the court prepared to hear Mawarire’s case, Mnangagwa was due to swear in Kumbirai Hodzi as prosecutor general, government officials said.

Hodzi raised eyebrows when he told the interviewing panel that he took instructions from the executive when deciding who to prosecute, leading to opposition accusations that the prosecutor general’s office was not independent.

Last week’s protests and security crackdown brought into focus Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis, exposing deep-seated anger over the direction of the economy.

Mnangagwa promised during campaigning for the July 2018 presidential vote to repair the economy and break with Mugabe’s politics. However, critics say Zimbabwe has fallen back into a familiar pattern.

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Activist Pastor Evan MawarireZimbabweMnangagwaMugabeZimbabwe’s Human Rights Commission