By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE, Jan 23 (Reuters) – Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire faced more time in jail after a court delayed his bail application on Wednesday, as hundreds of others arrested during a brutal crackdown on protesters awaited trial.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa had promised a day earlier to investigate the security services’ actions against anti-government protesters and called for a “national dialogue” with churches, civil society and the opposition.
But security services kept up patrols and manned checkpoints in the capital and Bulawayo, and residents said soldiers beat people out walking in both cities on Tuesday night, ordering them to stay indoors.
There was no immediate comment from the army which has dismissed accusations of excessive force in the past.
Lawyers and activists say police and soldiers have killed at least a dozen people, wounded scores and arrested hundreds since demonstrations began 10 days ago following a hike in the price of fuel. Police say three people died during the protests.
Zimbabwe’s Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) has accused security forces of systematic torture, offering the starkest indications yet that the country is reverting to the authoritarian rule that characterised Mnangagwa’s predecessor Robert Mugabe.
“Soldiers just appeared in a truck and started beating up people at the shopping centre. They told everyone to go home and sleep,” said one resident from Glen Norah township in Harare who declined to be named.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum said a woman was arrested by detectives in the capital’s Kuwadzana township on Tuesday night and accused of preparing food for protesters.
Mawarire, who rose to prominence as a critic of Robert Mugabe’s rule and led a national protest shutdown in 2016, was arrested on Wednesday last week and charged with inciting violence to subvert the government – an offence punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The pastor, who is being held in the capital’s Chikurubi Maximum Prison, said in his written bail application: “I aver that to peacefully challenge that the government should address the economic challenges is permissible under the constitution.”
State prosecutors argued that they needed more time to prepare their case and the hearing was adjourned until Friday.
Mnangagwa promised during campaigning for the July 2018 presidential vote to repair the economy and break with Mugabe’s politics.
But a spokesman for the president said on Sunday the crackdown was a foretaste of how authorities would respond to future unrest.
With high inflation and a shortage of cash in circulation eating into ordinary Zimbabweans’ spending power, the fragile state of the economy is at the heart of the country’s political troubles. (Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Heavens)