Zimbabwean police plan to charge activist pastor Evan Mawarire with subverting the government, a crime which carries up to 20 years in jail on conviction, after violent protests this week in which three people were killed and scores injured, lawyers said.
Armed police arrested Mawarire on Wednesday and initially charged with the lesser crime of inciting public violence after he posted on social media encouraging Zimbabweans to heed a strike called by the country’s biggest labour union.
Triggered by a sharp rise in the price of fuel announced by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the strike ended on Wednesday after protesters had barricaded roads with rocks and burning tyres in the capital Harare. Demonstrators in the second city of Bulawayo looted shops.
A doctors’ group said they had treated nearly 70 people for gunshot wounds while police rounded up 600 people after the protests, including Mawarire and an opposition legislator.
A spokesman for Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, whose lawyers are representing Mawarire and more than 130 others, said police had decided to upgrade the pastor’s charges, delaying his appearance in court.
Mawarire, a Harare pastor who rose to prominence as a critic of former strongman Robert Mugabe and led a national protest shutdown in 2016, faced similar charges in 2017 but was acquitted by the High Court for lack of evidence.
Zimbabweans had hoped Mnangagwa would make good on pre-election pledges to revive the economy and break with the Mugabe era, but Zimbabwe has fallen back into familiar ways.
The protests, which took place only five months after six people were killed in post-election demonstrations last August, pose a challenge for Mnangagwa who promised to repair the struggling economy after he replaced long-time leader Mugabe following a coup in November 2017.
While some businesses and banks opened after the three-day strike, inflation data for December showed the annual consumer price index soaring to 42 percent, adding more woes to citizens struggling with daily life.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said its members had treated 172 people, some with dog bites, in private and public hospitals since Monday, when the protests started.