BY TANYA NYATHI
Evan Mawarire remembers receiving a harrowing call in May of last year. The person on the other end of the phone spoke in Shona, a dominant dialect among Zimbabweans.
“Unon ziva kuti flag iroro rino gona kukudzipa herre?”
“Do you know that that very flag that you have around your neck could strangle you to death?”
Mawarire, 39, is pastor of a charismatic church and a human rights activist.He is dark skinned, wears square looking spectacles, and a full-size Zimbabwean flag hangs around his neck most of the time. A few white hairs are starting to appear on his chin. Mawarire knows that his activism has the Zimbabwean government out to silence him.
“My wife called one time and said, ‘Listen! We had a visit again! Twelve guys came banging on the door looking for you and said we must tell you that the police where here.”
Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe Association National Unity Patriotic Front Party known as ZANU PF have exercised repressive control over its citizens for more than 30 years. Abduction, arrest, torture, abuse and harassment are some of the tactics employed by the government to silence any opposition. Mawarire is one of the government’s latest targets.
A Zimbabwean court had acquitted Mawarire on state charges of treason. He was arrested after he organized strikes and demonstrations in protest of corruption and injustice. The state still wanted him behind bars, however, and he decided to seek refuge in the U.S. in July.
A legal scholar of human rights says the ruling of the court should supersede all else.
“That should not happen really. Zimbabwe is a common law country — the court must have the final order,” said Francis Ssekandi, a former Ugandan appeals court judge who is Columbia University law professor. “At the end, the executive has to recognize that the judiciary has the final word, especially if the matter concerns the violation of constitutional rights of an individual.”
Zimbabwe’s government has a documented history of severe repression of any opposition. The most glaring example came in the 1980s when more than 20,000 people were massacred for being against Mugabe. His government has consistently refused to accept court orders protecting opposition voices.
“Zimbabwe for the longest time has been those basket cases where the rule of law has not been respected. There are restrictive laws that impact directly on citizen’s freedoms — freedoms to communicate freely and to associate with who you want.” said Dzie Chimbga a lawyer and director at Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
“The country puts up laws such as ‘insult laws,’ which criminalize ‘insulting’ the president, whether on social media or any platform,” said Dr. Wallace Chuma, a professor in Media at the University of Cape Town. Prof. Chuma’s research involves media and political transition in Southern Africa. “Already there’s been a conviction of a citizen accused of insulting President Mugabe on Facebook.”
Early before Mawarire sought refuge in the U.S., he had received another anonymous note on Facebook messenger. A man who claimed to be in Britain called to give him a warning:
“You have started a fire.”
The man said he and his counterparts had tried confronting Mugabe in the past but they failed, forcing them to flee the country through Botswana.
According to the United States Department of State Human Rights report 2015, Zimbabwe’s government has perpetrated many human rights injustices. These include freedom of speech, association and press. Mawarire has become a victim of injustice and violation of human rights.
Despite the threats, Mawarire decided to travel back to Zimbabwe, to continue advocating for justice. On arrival at the airport in Harare, he was arrested for pending charges of treason by the state.
“I did nothing wrong” he said on a video found on YouTube, during his arrest. “I am Zimbabwean; I am allowed to come back home”.
After spending a week in Chikurubi Maximum Prison, in a cell designated for convicted prisoners of the worst crimes, the court released Mawarire on bail. His trial has been postponed indefinitely but he will not be allowed to travel out of Zimbabwe or perform any other form of activism while awaiting trial.