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Zimbabwe acquits activist pastor of subverting Robert Mugabe's government

(Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)Activist Pastor Evan Mawarire leaves the High Court after he was found not guilty of subversion in Harare, Zimbabwe, November 29, 2017.

A Zimbabwe court has acquitted activist pastor Evan Mawarire of attempting to overthrow former president Robert Mugabe when he led protests that shut down major cities last year.

Mawarire, who organized the #ThisFlag movement that inspired mass protests across Zimbabwe, was found not guilty of subversion, a week after the forced resignation of Mugabe, who had ruled the country for nearly 40 years.

"There is no evidence that he (Mawarire) urged a violent removal of government," said high court judge Priscilla Chigumba, adding that the pastor had called for non-violent protests in response to the economic crisis in the country.

Mawarire drew national attention after he posted an internet video, in which he lamented Zimbabwe's troubles while wearing the national flag.

Prosecutors tried to link the pastor to the stone-throwing and other violence that occurred during last year's mass protests. They contended that the pastor must have foreseen that his social media campaign could lead to violence when he urged people not to go to work and shop owners not to open their businesses as a way of expressing their opposition to Mugabe's government.

In her ruling, Chigumba acknowledged that Mawarire tried to "cripple government operations," but noted that the pastor urged "passive resistance." The judge further argued that Mawarire was only exercising his constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

"The whole journey has been absurd," Mawarire said, according to Agence France Presse. "I should not have been in the dock at all. I should never have had to spend 11 months trying to defend myself from exercising my constitutional rights. One hopes that as our country changes and begins to move forward that things like this should never ever be allowed to happen," he added.

Mawarire's acquittal had been expected as the judge had previously hinted that the case against the pastor was weak when he was granted bail.

The pastor said that he was "absolutely elated" by the acquittal, but he cautioned that it was too soon to tell whether it reflected a trend towards a more independent judiciary.

Mugabe, who had long been accused of using the courts to hound his political opponents, resigned on Nov. 21 after soldiers put him under house arrest.

He was replaced by his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had promised a "new era of democracy."

Mawarire had called on his fellow citizens to join him in "building a better Zimbabwe" in a tweet that also featured a selfie taken in the courtroom. The pastor also warned the new president, who is a veteran from the ruling ZANU-PF party, against stifling people's rights.

"If they do to us what Robert Mugabe's government did to us, we will do the same thing to them," the pastor said.

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