Zimbabwe pastor faces 20-year jail term for 'subverting' Mugabe regime

(Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)Pastor Evan Mawarire is escorted by detectives as he arrives at court to face charges of attempting to subvert the government, in Harare, Zimbabwe, September 26, 2017.

Zimbabwe protest pastor Evan Mawarire appeared at a Harare court on Monday to face multiple subversion charges stemming from protests last year against President Robert Mugabe's regime.

The pastor pleaded not guilty to two counts of subverting the government and incitement to cause public violence, Agence France Presse reported.

He is facing a sentence of up to 20 years in prison if convicted, and he could face another trial even if he is acquitted.

Mawarire, the founder of the ThisFlag protest movement, was arrested on Sunday at his Harare church after he appeared in a live Facebook video chat on Saturday evening, urging citizens to participate in a non-violent protest against the government. He has been charged with another count of subverting the government, following the arrest.

On Monday, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) denounced the arrest, saying it is an "infringement on the liberty of the cleric for exercising his constitutional and fundamental human rights to freedom of speech and to peacefully protest."

"The government is urged to stop the arbitrary arrest of human rights activists, and habitual use of the law to persecute and silence its critics," the group added.

During Monday's trial, state prosecutor Chris Mtungadura contended that Mawarire's social media posts were aimed at inciting citizens to overthrow the government. But defense lawyer Harrison Nkomo insisted that the pastor was not breaking any laws.

"He was exercising his constitutional rights of challenging the policies of government. This ... was done in a lawful manner," Nkomo told the court.

Judge Priscilla Chigumba granted Mawarire $200 bail, but he remained in detention until he appeared at a lower court regarding the charges related to his arrest on Sunday.

As part of the bail conditions, the pastor was ordered to surrender the title deeds of his parent's property.

Mawarire was released on Tuesday by the magistrates court, which stated that his rights have been violated because the police failed to bring him to court within 48 hours following his arrest, as stipulated by law.

Prior to his arrest on Sunday, the pastor told his congregation: "Zimbabwe, you will be free. There is no bondage or operation that will hold you back. We will not fear anybody. They (police) are outside here. They are waiting. I will not be afraid. I will not be put into fear. I will go outside now and see where this will lead us. I do not know what will happen."

Zimbabwe is facing a growing economic crisis and a shortage of foreign currency, despite the adoption of the U.S. dollar and other currencies.

The government adopted the U.S. dollar as the official currency in 2009, alongside the British sterling and South African rand, in an attempt to stem galloping inflation which has hit 231 million percent. Bond notes, which are pegged to the U.S. dollar, were introduced in 2016 to ease the shortages, but it has done little to ease the country's currency woes.

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