HARARE, Zimbabwe (RNS) — A prominent pastor who helped mobilize the movement that ousted longtime dictator Robert Mugabe in late 2017 is now facing 20 years in prison for opposing the new regime he helped usher in.
Pastor Evan Mawarire of His Generation Church faces charges of incitement to violence and subverting the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa – the same charges Mawarire faced under Mugabe before the president was deposed.
The pastor says that power may have changed hands but not much else is different in the southern African country.
“We thought that things would change after Mugabe but we replaced Mugabe with another Mugabe,” said Mawarire, 41. "It breaks my heart … but we will fight on."
In November 2017, Mawarire helped mobilize thousands of Zimbabweans onto the streets of the capital, Harare, to demand Mugabe’s resignation after an intervention by the country’s military that ended the iron-fisted leader’s 37-year rule.
Shortly before Mugabe was forced to step down Nov. 21, 2017, Mawarire was arraigned in court on subversion charges after he joined other pro-democracy activists in calling for a two-day national shutdown that paralyzed the transport sector and brought business to a halt in the country. He was acquitted after Mnangagwa took over on Nov. 24, 2017.
The new charges arose in January after the pastor and Peter Mutasa, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Zimbabwe’s main labor body, jointly posted a video on social networking sites in January calling on Zimbabweans to stay at home in a peaceful protest of Mnangagwa's planed fuel price hike — a rise of more than 150 percent.
The rise comes at a time when the country’s economy is collapsing and the majority of Zimbabweans are jobless and live far below the poverty line.
After that call, some Zimbabweans took to the streets, while authorities responded by shutting down the internet and firing on protesters, killing more than a dozen people, according to the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights.
Hundreds of people were wounded and some women were raped, while more than 1,000 people were arrested, civil rights groups and the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party led by Nelson Chamisa allege.
The government and the army have blamed rogue elements for the assaults and deaths.
“We have a very disciplined army that maintained its constitutional duties during the protests and those offenses could have been committed by rogue elements or army deserters,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas Nyikayaramba, a top military chief, who appealed to Zimbabweans to report to the police any member of the army whom they suspected to have acted outside his or her constitutional mandate so that investigations can be conducted.
Meanwhile, Mawarire was arrested Jan. 16 and jailed in the country's maximum security prison until the High Court released him on bail two weeks later.
Mawarire said he saw evidence of beatings in the prison where he was held: "I was locked up with more than 300 men whose limbs were broken after being beaten by police and soldiers. I never saw those kinds of injuries before," he said. "It was worse than under Mugabe. It's a tragedy."
Meanwhile, the MDC party's national spokesperson, Jacob Mafume, said the targeting of Mawarire and others members of his party was an attempt by the state to decimate the opposition.
“The arbitrary arrest of our party cadres and that of Pastor Mawarire is a clear sign that Mnangagwa’s illegitimate government wants to silence all dissenting voices,” said Mafume.
However, national police spokesperson Commissioner Charity Charamba rebuffed the opposition’s allegations that the police were partisan.
“We are impartial. We arrested Mawarire, some MDC and Zanu PF activists following the protests,” said Charamba. “Our duty as the police is to investigate and arrest; then the judiciary decides whether one is guilty or not.”
Mawarire's attorney, Beatrice Mtetwa, said it's clear the government has an ulterior motive beyond keeping peace in the country.
“There is nothing subversive in the video, which the state alleges constitutes the offense," she said. "In any case, Pastor Mawarire was calling for Zimbabweans to be peaceful so how does being peaceful constitute subversion? This is clear persecution.”
Meanwhile, Bishop Ancelimo Magaya of the Devine Destiny Network said that it was “hypocritical” for the Mnangagwa administration to target Mawarire for speaking out against it.
“It’s the church’s role to speak out against any malpractices by the state in the same way the clergy had supported the current leadership of Zimbabwe during the liberation struggle," he said. "Any attempts to silence the church now is being hypocritical. Our former liberators have become our oppressors.”
The government's information minister, Monica Mutsvangwa, declined to comment on the targeting of Mawarire and other activists, saying the matter was pending in the courts.
Previously, however, Mutsvangwa told the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. and the local Herald newspaper that the Mnangagwa administration suspected foreign influence played a role in the call by Mawarire and the ZCTU for protests.
Protesters deny such allegations.
After the arrest of Mawarire and a thousand other alleged protesters, the state has been fast-tracking their trials. Some have already been convicted and given lengthy sentences just weeks after the protests broke out. Attorneys have called the mass proceedings "show trials."
In the face of imminent incarceration, Mawarire said he will continue his opposition to the regime and will continue to encourage Zimbabweans no matter what happens to him, because there is no choice for Zimbabweans but to continue with the struggle, he said.
“I really want to encourage Zimbabweans to stand strong,” he told pan-African broadcaster iTV. "We can’t lose our voice. We lost it before. We can’t lose it again.”