HARARE – Activist clergyman and founder of the laudably patriotic #ThisFlag movement, Evan Mawarire, made a surprise return to Zimbabwe yesterday evening, and was immediately arrested by State security agents at Harare International Airport.
Mawarire’s lawyer, Harrison Nkomo, told the Daily News last night that the State had re-instated its previously unsuccessful charges claiming that the preacher was trying to subvert a constitutionally-elected government — for which, if convicted, he faces 20 years in prison.
Until his return yesterday, Mawarire had been living in self-imposed exile in the United States of America for six months, following his earlier harassment and the savage clampdown on his movement by panicking authorities.
As news filtered through last night that Mawarire had been arrested, the until-now forgotten
#ThisFlag campaign leader immediately started trending on micro-blogging site Twitter.
And in a video that was posted online yesterday, showing him in handcuffs, he said he had not committed any crime and rallied Zimbabweans to keep their hope up despite the worsening local political and economic rot.
The Baptist Church preacher was hounded out of the country last year after fearful authorities stepped up their crackdown against a restive populace and pro-democracy activists.
After leaving Zimbabwe, he relocated to South Africa before he eventually settled temporarily in the United States. Before then, Mawarire had been arrested on what his lawyers said were trumped up charges that led to his contentious detention allegedly for inciting public violence and stealing a police baton and helmet.
The popular clergyman had helped to organise one of the most successful and peaceful strikes in the history of post-independent Zimbabwe, with long-suffering citizens heeding his call to stay away from work to protest the country’s worsening economic rot.
Dubbed “Shutdown”, the crippling strike forced the panicking Zanu PF government to use excessive force to quell subsequent protests, as Zimbabweans agitated for change.
Mawarire’s arrest yesterday immediately triggered an outpouring of outrage and deep-felt condemnations, as fed up Zimbabweans fulminated over the ever deteriorating democratic space in the country.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC was among the groups which also savaged what it called the government’s “unlawful arrest” of Mawarire.
“The Zanu PF regime is in serious panic mode. The regime is isolated, bankrupt and clueless. They are seeing enemies everywhere where none exist because they know Zimbabweans are hungry and angry,” spokesperson Obert Gutu said.
“We are living in a police state where innocent citizens are routinely harassed and arrested on very flimsy and trumped up charges. The rule of law has been discarded and the collapsing and faction-infested Zanu PF regime has become increasingly intolerant and morbidly fascist.
“This is a harbinger of worse things to come as we approach the 2018 elections. There will be even worse human rights transgressions as … Mugabe and his gang of political thugs throw all caution to the wind. These political malcontents are determined to hold onto power at whatever cost,” an agitated Gutu said.
Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) director, Okay Machisa, said Mawarire’s arrest was hugely “problematic”, and was also as meant to clamp down on dissent.
“This is a sign of political overzealousness. What is even more worrisome is that State institutions are being used as political tools to squash people’s democratic freedoms which in itself is illegal.
“The fact is Mawarire is acting well within the confines of the law,” Machisa told the Daily News.
Senior researcher for southern Africa at the Human Rights Watch organisation Dewa Mavhinga, also warned that Mawarire’s arrest was likely to see government ratcheting up its clampdown on pro-democracy groups, in the run up to the 2018 national elections.
“There is no justifiable reason why the Zimbabwe government should arrest Mawarire on his return home, as he committed no crime and had been cleared by the courts prior to his departure.
“This is a red flag that the human rights situation remains bad and is a warning to rights groups that nothing has changed. The 2008 political and human rights environment is likely to be the same in 2018.
“The government should immediately release Mawarire and drop all trumped up charges against him,” Mavhinga said.
Peace building civic group, Heal Zimbabwe Trust, also said Mawarire’s arrest was patently illegal.
“Heal Zimbabwe strongly condemns the unlawful arrest of #ThisFlag movement founder … Mawarire. As soon as he landed, Mawarire was whisked away by plain clothes detectives as his relatives who had come to welcome him back watched in utter shock. … the infringement of citizens’ rights such as unlawful arrests and detentions are a violation of citizens’ fundamental human rights that are provided for in the Constitution,” its director, Rashid Mahiya, said.
Earlier in the day, Mawarire had told South African media en route to Zimbabwe, that he was feeling restless as he made the journey back to Harare.
“At some point, one has to stop wishing they were home, and actually pack their bags and go home. Zimbabwe is home for me and my family.
“That’s the place where we have a right to be without acquiring a visa. We are citizens of Zimbabwe. The president of Zimbabwe made comments to the effect that I was not welcome in Zimbabwe, but he doesn’t get to make that decision for me.
“I have not committed a crime, I’m not a fugitive, I’m a citizen, and an upstanding citizen for that matter,” Mawarire told South African online portal, Daily Maverick.
Mawarire’s sister, Teldah, had also told another online portal, Huffington Post South Africa, that her brother had left Johannesburg “quietly” earlier yesterday, headed for Harare.
“His flight landed just before 5pm. We understand from his lawyer that he is being held but we have no further information,” Teldah said.