Zimbabwean pastor faces 20-year prison sentence
Zimbabwe | Pastor Mwarire sparked national protests against the country’s government
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 2/03/17, 10:02 am
A Zimbabwean pastor who launched protests against the country’s President Robert Mugabe could face up to 20 years in prison for multiple charges against the state.
Police arrested Evan Mwarire on Wednesday at Harare International Airport as he returned from a self-imposed exile in the United States. Mwarire fled the country in August after he was arrested and then released for his involvement in several antigovernment protests. The pastor said he feared for his family’s well-being.
On Thursday, officials charged Mwarire with subverting the government, which carries up to a 20-year sentence, as well as inciting public violence and insulting the national flag.
“He skipped the country, but as you know, going to America was never going to wash away his crimes,” police spokeswoman Charity Charamba said. “We were waiting for him to return.”
Mwarire became a key opposition figure in April, when he shared a Facebook video of himself, wrapped in the country’s flag, criticizing the government of Zimbabwe under Mugabe. The video sparked a nationwide protest movement against government corruption and the country’s failing economy. In July, protesters staged a national strike that led the closure of schools and businesses across the country. Zimbabwean police arrested Mwarire after the protests, charging him with inciting public violence. But a court soon after ruled the police violated his rights and freed him. In September, Mwarire organized an anti-Mugabe protest in New York City during the United Nations General Assembly.
Amnesty International condemned the arrest as an attempt to silence Mwarire and called for his release. CIVICUS, a global alliance that works to strengthen civil societies, said the protest movement was a way for citizens to let the government know they wanted an end to corruption and the country’s economic deterioration.
“The charges against Pastor Evan Mwarire are clearly politically motivated and designed to intimidate and harass him,” said Sara Brandt, a policy and research analyst at CIVICUS. “He is the victim of a government bent on criminalizing dissenting voices.”
Lloyd Kuveya, director of Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, said Mwarire’s arrest comes as a surprise since the government had already tried and failed to bring charges against him. Kuveya said the antigovernment protests reflect the country’s reality. Zimbabweans have limited access to health care, and the country has soaring unemployment rates due to a shrinking economy and hyperinflation. Political dissenters also continue to face opposition, he added. Three human rights activists recently received two-year sentences. Kuveya said Mwarire’s case could further dampen the human rights movement.
“It will have a chilling effect on any other human rights defenders who want to keep speaking against this government,” Kuveya said. “I’ve already heard some of the young human rights defenders say it might not be worth it to continue with the struggle.”
Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.