Leader of the Zimbabwean protest movement #ThisFlag Pastor Evan Mawarire has been arrested on charges of inciting public violence.
Evan Mawarire was summoned to a police station in the capital, Harare, on Tuesday morning, where he was questioned before being charged with public order offences. The 39-year-old pastor will be held in cells until he is brought before a magistrate on Wednesday.
Mawarire led a shutdown last week that paralysed major cities as staff stayed away from many offices, schools and banks. The demands of his #ThisFlag movement include the sacking of corrupt ministers, the payment of delayed salaries and the lifting of roadblocks that residents say police use to extract bribes.
A further two-day shutdown is planned for later this week.
The move against Mawarire, who had been in hiding following what appeared to have been an attempted abduction, is part of a broader attempt to end the protest movement.
“He’s good. In good spirits. Let’s take the system on and move forward,” said a close associate immediately after the arrest.
In Bulawayo, the southern city that has been a focus of protests in recent weeks, Thabitha Khumalo, an opposition MP, was also called in for questioning by police.
Other activists and protesters have been arrested and detained. Some have been bailed in recent days.
Lawyers representing Mawarire have argued that he has always called for non-violent protests and so cannot be guilty of inciting public disorder.
According to the Guadian, the pastor called on the international community to put pressure on the government of the 92-year-old autocrat Robert Mugabe to “listen to its own citizens”.
“The [government] has stolen our money. It is out of touch with the problems we have … This is a non-violent movement, and must remain non-violent. It’s a confrontation of truth,” he said.
Strikes by public sector workers including teachers, doctors and civil servants, merged with the #ThisFlag protest last week. Many have now been paid arrears that had been outstanding for months, in some cases, and the same convergence of opposition may not be seen in the protests planned for Wednesday and Thursday. Their scale may be significantly reduced as a result, observers say.
The wave of arrests is likely to have an impact too. During last week’s protest, scores were injured and more than 100 demonstrators were arrested.
International campaigners have long criticised Zimbabwe for its poor record on human rights. In March last year Itai Dzamara, a 36-year-old journalist who led a peaceful protest movement, was abducted by armed men.
Officials have described the protesters as “terrorists” and have blamed foreign powers for sabotaging the economy and stirring unrest. Ignatious Chombo, the ruling Zanu-PF party’s administration secretary, accused western embassies in Harare and opposition parties of trying to cause anarchy. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation described last week’s shutdown as a “flop”.
Observers say the pressures on Mugabe, Africa’s oldest leader, and on his party are immense. Mugabe has led the former British colony since independence in 1980. A series of controversial measures during the last 20 years – such as stripping white farmers of land more than a decade ago – have caused massive economic disruption. In 2009, hyperinflation forced Zimbabwe to adopt foreign currencies – largely the US dollar – after its own currency collapsed. In 2013, Zanu-PF won an election amid widespread claims of vote rigging.