Court releases pastor behind anti-government protests in Zimbabwe

A court in Zimbabwe late Wednesday ordered the release of a pastor who was charged with attempting to "overthrow the government," for organizing anti-government protests.

Evan Mawarire, a leader of a grassroots movement opposing 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe, was on Tuesday charged with inciting violence and disturbing the peace following his call to Zimbabweans to protest at the dismal state of the economy.

But when he appeared in court on Wednesday, the state changed the charge to "overthrowing or attempting to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means."

The defence argued that Mawarire should have been informed of his charges immediately after his arrest. Magistrate Vakayi Chikwekwe ruled that the state had "violated the constitution" and ordered the pastor's release.

Earlier, more than 1,000 supporters demonstrated outside the Harare courthouse.

The protest movement had called a strike on social media for Wednesday and Thursday to protest at soaring unemployment, corruption, civil servants not getting paid, police brutality and a ban on the import of basic goods because of a shortage of foreign currency.

Some shops and businesses followed the strike call despite a government threat to crack down on protesters.

"Most of our students returned home, because some of my teachers did not come to work today," said the headmaster of a local school, who did not want to be named.

"The government must immediately react to issues that we, as Zimbabweans, are raising," said Promise Mkwananzi, a youth leader with the protest movement.

"We need Mugabe's government to provide the 2.2 million jobs that he promised."

Large numbers of police were deployed in Harare after Home Minister Ignatious Chombo warned that the "instigators of these protests ... will face the full wrath of the law."

"Our police are out in full force to deal with any form of lawlessness," Chombo said on Tuesday.

Mugabe, who participated in the liberation struggle against white minority rule in the 1960s and 1970s, has ruled the southern African country since independence in 1980.

Zimbabwe's economy is still struggling to recover from an economic crisis caused partly by the expropriation of thousands of white farmers since 2000.

The government spends about 80 per cent of its revenue on the salaries of public sector employees, while about 80 per cent of the workforce is estimated to be officially unemployed, scraping a living in the informal sector.

Last update: Wed, 13/07/2016 - 23:03

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