Econet Wireless says restores all internet and social media services

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s biggest mobile phone operator Econet Wireless restored all internet and social media services on Monday after a court ruled the government’s shutdown of the internet last week was illegal, it said in a message to subscribers.

The sporadic internet blackout, ordered by Security Minister Owen Ncube, began on Tuesday following the start of protests against a rise in fuel prices that turned violent.

Zimbabwe’s government intensified its crackdown on dissent Monday by charging the leader of the country’s largest labor organization with subversion, as the courts ruled that the shutdown of the internet was illegal.

Zimbabwe police arrested Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, and charged him with subversion for his role in organizing last week’s national strike.

The arrest comes after a week of turmoil. During the strike, some people went onto the streets to protest the government’s drastic increase in fuel prices. The government said the demonstrations degenerated into riots, prompting it to launch a sweeping clampdown in which 12 people were killed, according to human rights organizations. Security forces opened fire on crowds, wounding many bystanders, and went house to house in some neighborhoods, beating up many men, according to witnesses. More than 600 people were arrested.

The government also imposed an internet blackout across the country. On Monday Zimbabwe’s High Court ordered the government to restore full internet to the country. The shutdown of the internet was illegal because the Minister of State for Security, who ordered the internet closure, does not have powers to issue such a directive, said the court ruling. Only President Emmerson Mnangagwa has the authority to make such an order, said the court. Over the weekend the government restored partial internet access, but kept a blackout on social media apps like Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. The government alleges the internet has been used to organize violent demonstrations.

Zimbabwe’s capital gingerly recovered from the week of tumult Monday. Most shops and businesses reopened, although many people are stocking up on food items in case of further unrest.

Mnangagwa is expected to return to the country late Monday, after announcing Sunday that he will skip attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He is in Kazakhstan, after visiting Russia last week, where he met with President Vladimir Putin to ask for a loan.

Indicating the severity of Zimbabwe’s economic problems, South Africa confirmed that it turned down Mnangagwa’s request for a loan of $1.2 billion recently. “We just don’t have that kind of money,” South African treasury spokesman Jabulani Sikhakhane told the broadcaster, eNCA.

Activist and pastor Evan Mawarire has been jailed since Wednesday and has been charged with subversion against the government for which he faces 20 years in jail if convicted. Mawarire had used social media to support peaceful protests against the fuel price increases. The case against Mawarire is a “travesty of justice” said his lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa. His application to be released on bail will be heard on Jan. 23.

In the widespread crackdown, about two-thirds of the more than 600 people who were arrested have been denied bail, said Mtetwa.

When Mnangagwa tweeted Sunday that he would cut short his European trip and to come back to Zimbabwe, he didn’t mention the violence, saying only that he is returning “in light of the economic situation.” He said his first priority “is to get Zimbabwe calm, stable and working again.”

At Davos, he planned to appeal for foreign investment and loans, but the visit had been expected to be a challenge. His Davos visit a year ago came shortly after he took over from longtime, repressive leader Robert Mugabe, a move cheered by Zimbabweans and the international community.

But Mnangagwa has faced a year of troubles in which his administration failed to improve the collapsed economy, narrowly won a disputed election and violently put down anti-government protests.

The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference last week lamented the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt economic collapse, concluding that “our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history.”