Harare, Zimbabwe, Feb 8 – A court in Zimbabwe on Wednesday released on bail the pastor who last year led a surge of protests against President Robert Mugabe and is now facing subversion charges.
Evan Mawarire, an evangelical pastor, started the popular “This Flag” protest movement after posting a Facebook video last April, in which he wore Zimbabwe’s flag on his shoulders as he condemned the country’s worsening economic crisis.
Judge Clement Phiri ordered Mawarire to surrender his passport and report twice a week to the police as well as paying a $300 (280 euro) bond. He will next appear in court on February 17.
“It is ordered that (Evan Mawarire) be admitted to bail,” said Phiri.
Mawarire was arrested on Wednesday February 1 at Harare airport as he returned to the country after fleeing in July in fear for his life when Mugabe publicly criticised him.
Following Mugabe’s intervention, security forces violently crushed the protest movement that had led to a series of anti-government protests and work strikes.
Phiri described the prosecution’s case as “weak” while prosecutor Edmore Nyazamba insisted that Mawarire was “a celebrated terrorist” who would abscond if bailed.
After leaving Zimbabwe, the pastor first travelled to South Africa and then to the United States, raising awareness of his movement.
“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,” Mawarire said in an interview with South African website Daily Maverick shortly before he flew to Harare.
He added that he was considering running for public office in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe has dominated politics since national independence in 1980 through election rigging and violence.
– ‘Respect citizens’ rights’ –
The pastor’s sister Teldah Mawarire welcomed Evan’s release.
“We are happy that the wheels of justice are turning, however it is still our concern that Zimbabweans who speak out should not be persecuted,” she told AFP.
“Freedom of speech, the freedom to organise, the freedom to assemble are basic human rights and we call on the state to respect the rights of citizens.”
Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped government has struggled to pay civil servants and the military on time as the economy has suffered a severe meltdown with more than 90 percent unemployment.
Mawarire, 39, was also detained in Zimbabwe last year for allegedly trying to overthrow the state, but a court dropped the charges against him — a surprise move that triggered rare celebrations on the streets of Harare.
Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old president, who is increasingly frail, has vowed to stand for re-election in 2018, though leading figures in Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party have long been jockeying to step into the role when he dies.
In a vote widely seen as not credible, Mugabe easily defeated the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party in the last election in 2013.