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Human Rights Foundation (HRF) welcomes the release of civil society leader Evan Mawarire and the court’s ruling that his rights were violated. Mawarire is a popular evangelical pastor who started...

Human Rights Foundation (HRF) welcomes the release of civil society leader Evan Mawarire and the court’s ruling that his rights were violated. Mawarire is a popular evangelical pastor who started the “#ThisFlag” movement to protest against police brutality and the destruction of the economy under President Mugabe’s rule. Upon his arrest, Mawarire was charged with “inciting public disorder,” but the prosecution then added the more severe charge of subversion on the day of Mawarire’s trial without notifying his legal team. During Mawarire’s trial last Wednesday, a magistrate judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for the prosecution to bring new charges in court and acquitted Mawarire of all charges.

“It is encouraging that a Zimbabwean court would order the charges against a prominent critic dropped,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “However, Mawarire should not have been arrested in the first place. His movement called for people to stay home; it is therefore absurd that he was charged with causing public disorder. Zimbabwean authorities must stop arresting peaceful protesters and allow freedom of speech in the country,” added Halvorssen.

Mawarire’s “#ThisFlag” movement called for people to stay home and not go to work, which caused shutdowns of offices, schools, and banks. The movement protests against government corruption and extortion, police brutality, and the country’s economic situation. The shutdown paralyzed cities in Zimbabwe as officials struggled to end the protests. Before his arrest, Mawarire was in hiding following an attempted abduction. After the abduction attempt, he recorded a video speech asking the authoritarian regime: “Why can you not extend a hand that says ‘I agree’ or that says ‘let’s discuss’? Why must you always extend handcuffs that say I want to lock you away and you are my enemy when you disagree?”

Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old president Robert Mugabe has ruled the country since 1980 and has no intention of stepping down. Zimbabwe is rated “not free” by Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Index and ranks 124th in Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index that evaluates all countries in the world. Although the judiciary is said to have shown improvement in independence in recent years, arrests of peaceful protesters are commonplace.

The subversion charge the prosecution brought against Mawarire punishes “overthrowing or attempting to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means.” This charge is more serious than the original charge of "inciting public disorder" and carries a penalty of up to 20 years of imprisonment. Judge Chikkwekwe explained that the new charge was unconstitutionally brought because the prosecution failed to inform Mawarire of the charge when he was arrested. Because the acquittal rested upon a procedural matter, Mawarire could face arrest on both incitement and subversion charges again in the future.

“The incitement charge brought against Mawarire is not an isolated development — we often see authoritarian regimes use similar overly broad and vague incitement charges against peaceful activists, journalists, and political dissidents all around the world, from China, to Thailand, to Venezuela,” said Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer of HRF. “Article 31 of Zimbabwe’s Criminal Law Act criminalizing ‘incitement to public disorder’ violates Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Zimbabwe is a signatory, because it is not drafted with sufficient precision to prevent unreasonable restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. The vaguely drafted provision must be repealed,” El-Hage added.

Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. HRF’s International Council includes human rights advocates George Ayittey, Vladimir Bukovsky, Palden Gyatso, Garry Kasparov, Mutabar Tadjibaeva, and Marina Nemat