Zimbabwe court rules pastor Mawarire to stand trial for subverting government

FILE PHOTO: Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire is escorted by detectives as he arrives at the Harare Magistrates courts in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

HARARE (Reuters) – A magistrates court in Harare ruled on Friday that Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire would stand trial for allegedly subverting the government and that he must appear in court on January 31.

Mawarire, who rose to prominence as a critic of former president Robert Mugabe and led a national protest in 2016, will be kept in custody until his next court appearance.

A magistrate in Zimbabwe says there is reasonable suspicion that a well-known pastor accused of subversion amid nationwide protests committed an offense, and has set another hearing for Jan. 31.

Evan Mawarire must remain in detention over the weekend, and his lawyer says she will apply on Monday for bail. He is accused of inciting civil disobedience via social media as Zimbabweans protest a dramatic fuel price increase.

He is one of more than 600 people arrested this week in a sometimes violent crackdown, and the government has ordered internet services shut off.

Mawarire’s lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa had argued that facts presented by the prosecution did not disclose an offense.

The U.N. human rights office is denouncing reported “excessive use of force” by Zimbabwe’s security forces against protesters opposed to dramatic fuel price increases and austerity measures.

Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters Friday in Geneva: “It’s very difficult to manage a situation like this, but the bottom line is that the use of live ammunition by security forces was used, excessive violence was used.”

She notes the burning of buildings and reports of looting. She says it is unclear whether “opportunists,” like hungry people searching for food, or “demonstrators” were behind it.

Shamdasani calls on all sides to refrain from violence.

Zimbabweans injured during a government crackdown on protests over a dramatic fuel price increase are streaming into a hospital in the capital, Harare.

People have broken legs and other injuries. A nurse attends to a man with a broken spine.

Albert Taurai tells The Associated Press he had ventured out to look for bread when plainclothes officers wearing masks beat him up.

Keith Frymore has a torn lip. The security guard tells the AP a group of uniformed soldiers attacked him at work.

Alarm is growing over the crackdown this week on a nationwide stay-at-home protest movement.

A media group says Zimbabwe’s government has again forced a “total internet shutdown” after a days-long violent crackdown on people protesting dramatic fuel price increases.

MISA-Zimbabwe shares a text message from the country’s largest telecom company, Econet, calling the government order “beyond our reasonable control.” The shutdown faces a court challenge from MISA-Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

A prominent pastor and activist who faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge is set to appear in court again on Friday. Evan Mawarire calls it “heartbreaking” to see the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa acting like that of former leader Robert Mugabe.

International calls for restraint are growing, while Mnangagwa prepares to plead for more investment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.