THE latest arrest of #ThisFlag activist and cleric Evan Mawarire exposes the heavy-handedness of the Zimbabwean government and its brazen violation of the constitution and a justiciable bill of rights.
Mawarire was arrested on Wednesday last week upon arrival at the Harare International Airport from his six-month-long self-imposed exile in the United States. The social activist was whisked away by security officials shortly before processing his passport at the immigration desk.
Two days after his arrest, Mawarire appeared in the Magistrates’ Court where he was remanded in custody to February 17. He was advised to seek bail at the High Court.
Mawarire was charged with insulting the Zimbabwean national flag, inciting public violence and subverting a constitutionally-elected government.
His arrest puts Zimbabwe in the spotlight, showing, yet again, how the country still lags behind in terms of respect for human rights and how it flagrantly violates its own constitution.
Section 58 of the constitution states that every citizen has the right to freedom of assembly and association. Section 59 points out that every citizen has the right to demonstrate and petition.
Section 60, which becomes more relevant to Mawarire’s arrest, states that every Zimbabwean has the freedom of conscience.
“Freedom of conscience includes freedom of thought, opinion, religion or belief; and freedom to practise and propagate and give expression to their thought, opinion, religion or belief, whether in public or in private and whether alone or together with others,” it reads.
Section 60 of the constitution also guarantees freedom of expression.
Mawarire is being detained in the “D” section Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison where the most dangerous criminals, including murderers and armed robbers, are detained. This alone amplifies the vindictive nature of the state.
The 39-year-old pastor became popular in April 2016 when he posted a video of himself draped in a Zimbabwean flag on social media and protested against corruption in government and President Robert Mugabe’s misrule. Mawarire, through his social media video messages, started a movement, #ThisFlag, whose main objectives were to fight corruption, poverty and suffering.
After organising a number of demonstrations as per his constitutional right and a stayaway through social media, Mawarire was arrested and charged with inciting public violence. The charge was subsequently amended to a much more serious charge of subversion. However, he was released the next day as Zimbabweans roared in outrage, with the court ruling that the police had violated his rights. Thousands of Zimbabweans showed up at the courts at that time, demanding Mawarire’s release.
However, upon his latest arrest, very few Zimbabweans showed up at the courts in support of him.
After Mawarire won the case where he was being represented by Zimbabwe Human Rights Lawyer Harrison Nkomo, he fled to South Africa and then eventually America where his family later joined him.
Human rights group Amnesty International on Thursday last week called for his immediate release.
“The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Pastor Evan Mawarire, as he is a prisoner of conscience imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of his rights,” Amnesty International deputy regional director for Southern Africa Muleya Mwananyanda said in a statement. “It is designed to make him stop his human rights activism and to punish him for speaking out about the declining human rights situation in Zimbabwe.”
Mawarire, just like almost every other Zimbabwean, was feeling the pinch of the declining economy hence his decision to express his frustration with poverty and hopelessness. Human rights defenders have complained that the Mugabe regime has criminalised dissent even though the constitution empowers citizens with freedom of expression.
During protests against Mugabe’s misrule, the government issued a chilling warning, vowing to crack down on those who “abused” the internet.
Mawarire in his statement explained how he was being charged for insulting the Zimbabwean flag.
“It is alleged that I insulted the Zimbabwean national flag by using it to brand my politically-motivated criminal activities and each time when I addressed or incited the public or my followers to revolt against a constitutionally-elected government by urging workers not to go to work and carry out demonstrations, I would wear the Zimbabwean national flag in circumstances which were calculated to show disrespect for (the) flag or to bring the Zimbabwean national flag into disrepute in contravention of the said Act,” reads Mawarire’s statement.
In yet another example of the state’s violation of constitutional rights, Zimbawean pastor Philip Magadza was arrested last month after predicting that Mugabe would die on October 17.
Magadza was charged with “causing offence to persons of a particular race or religion.” He is yet to appear before the Magistrates’ Courts as his matter was postponed.
Magadza, who is from the small Remnant Church community, claimed that God came to him on Boxing Day last year and told him that Mugabe, who will be 93 in a fortnight, would die in October.
Political analyst Eldred Masunungure said Mawarire’s arrest signals the government’s deeply entrenched paranoia.
“Saying Mawarire’s arrest shows that Zimbabwe is a police state is not supportable,” Masunungure said. “I would say it is more of paranoia from a state or regime that fears the unknown, a regime that is jittery ahead of 2018 general elections.”
“I do not think Mawarire is a significant security threat, government is actually elevating him to that level as I said that it is a regime of paranoia. Mawarire was just expressing his views and his opinions; he may be reckless but certainly not criminal,” Masunungure said.
He said by arresting Mawarire the state is breaching his constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association.
“A range of constitutional issues are at stake,” Masunungure said.
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said Mawarire’s arrest is uncalled for and shows the unnecessary heavy-handedness of the state.
“It’s a clear violation of his rights and liberties as well as the Constitution of Zimbabwe. His placing in the ‘D’ section is calculated to inject such pain on him as they know their case against him has no legal merit and will be trashed in court,” Saungweme said. “Placing him there (D section) is a form of extrajudicial vindictiveness and punishment. This is an unwarranted, wanton, despicable action by a regime that has failed to deliver on economic policy, social services, democracy, rule of law, transparency and anything and everything.”