by Reagan MASHAVAVE Supporters of Zimbabwe protest leader Evan Mawarire rallied Wednesday outside the court where he was set to appear after being arrested during a surge of unrest against President Robert Mugabe's government.
Mawarire, a pastor who has been charged with inciting public violence, was an organiser of a one-day nationwide shutdown last week when offices, shops, schools and some government departments stayed closed.
Protest organisers had appealed for Zimbabweans to hold another strike starting on Wednesday, but their calls were largely unsuccessful with businesses and schools open as usual.
Police were on patrol in the capital Harare after Mawarire, who founded the internet ThisFlag protest movement, was arrested on Tuesday.
A series of demonstrations in Zimbabwe, where protests are rare under Mugabe’s authoritarian rule, have been driven by an economic crisis that left banks short of cash and the government struggling to pay its workers.
“They made sure that they arrested the people who are most vocal and fearless — that is why the response is not as good as it was last week,” Onias Marongwa, who works in a grocery store, told AFP.
More than 150 mainly young supporters, many carrying the Zimbabwean flag that has become a symbol of the protests, sang and chanted outside the magistrate’s court in Harare.
Mawarire was brought into court through a back entrance, as scores of lawyers from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights group offered to represent him.
– Growing frustration -“The arrest of Pastor Evan Mawarire appears to be a well-calculated plan to intimidate him and other activists ahead of the national shutdown,” Muleya Mwananyanda of Amnesty International said in a statement.
“Instead of suppressing dissenting voices, Zimbabwean authorities should be listening to protesters.”
Amnesty said about 300 people had been arrested for participating in protests around the country since they started last week.
The recent demonstrations have revealed long-bubbling frustration in a country where 90 percent of the population are not in formal employment.
Mugabe, 92, has overseen years of economic decline, repression of dissent, allegedly rigged elections and mass emigration since he came to power in 1980.
Last week security forces used tear gas and water cannon to disperse violent protests outside Harare that erupted over police officers allegedly using road blocks to extort cash from motorists.
Television footage showed police beating protesters with sticks.
Other protests have erupted at the border with South Africa over a ban on imports such as canned vegetables, powdered milk and cooking oil.
On Tuesday, Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo held a press conference to warn that anyone who took part in the planned two-day strike would face “the full wrath of the law”.
“I urge members of the public to desist from engaging in illegal protests,” he said.
Many civil servants have been paid their delayed June salaries since last week.
In the southeastern town of Masvingo, most shops and offices were open despite the planned strike.
“The regime’s machinery is very visible,” Takafira Zhou, leader of the Progressive Teachers’ Union in the town, told AFP.
“Today’s response to the strike is low as some people who took part last week had their salaries forfeited and they fear for the worst if they are seen to be defiant.”
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