Here’s what you need to know about the crisis in Zimbabwe

A protester stands outside the courthouse where Evan Mawarire's hearing took place.

In just 48 hours, Zimbabwe’s law enforcers and prosecutors have gone arresting from a popular activist to bungling a case and having it thrown out of court. If you haven’t been able to keep up with the rapid developments, The Daily Vox rounds up.

So what’s all the fuss about?
On the 3rd of July, Evan Mawarire, leader of a citizen movement called #ThisFlag, put out a video calling on people to stay at home as a way of protesting Zimbabwe’s economic crisis. So on Wednesday, July 6th, most shops, schools and businesses in urban areas shut down, and had their own mid-week holiday. But there was a ruckus in some poorer areas as riot police armed with tear gas and batons clashed with rock-wielding, tyre-burning demonstrators. It wasn’t pretty.  Police assaulted people and messages of doom spread like wildfire on social media while a few shops were looted. Hundreds were cuffed and hauled before the courts. And the government, mad as a hatter, said Mawarire was to blame. By calling for the stay-away he had disturbed the peace and incited people to act violently, they said. He said he never called for violence, but they said it was his fault. And so after receiving a summons from the Criminal Investigation Department, Mawarire or Pastor E, as his Baptist congregants call him, handed himself in at Harare Central station on Tuesday.

And then what happened?
He was arrested.
 The police then got a warrant and searched his house and church looking for evidence that Mawarire wanted to stir up violence. They searched for a helmet and a baton stick because an ordinary civilian isn’t allowed to have those items. You can get cautioned, fined or jailed for having their equipment or clothing in your possession. Yep, even combat pants at one point, it’s only in recent years that civilians have been allowed to wear them because they’re so fashionable.

But since Pastor E’s case was special, already accused of inciting people and in calling for another stay away, the state figured they’d use those items to prove that he wanted to incite violence, thus strengthening their reasons to lock him up.

So he went to jail and then?
He spent a night in jail and he had to appear in court the next day. The call to stay away on 13 July didn’t go down so well and most people went to work while he went to court. When the trial finally got going, after several bloopers such as the prosecuting officer forgetting an affidavit at home, the state decided to change the charges and take it up a notch. They said Mawarire was attempting to “subvert the constitutional order” by calling for a protest that resulted in violence, but Pastor E had 50 lawyers, yeah, 50 pro-bono lawyers, standing in court, in his defence. The magistrate then rejected the state’s new charges and dismissed the case.

Wow, why?
Because the Constitution says so. You can’t charge someone with one offence then suddenly change it. Fadzayi Mahere, a brilliant advocate who has questioned the government on some of its measures, explains it thus.

“It’s unlawful, unprocedural and unconstitutional for the prosecution to amend a criminal charge at the thirteenth hour during a remand hearing – especially when the accused has not been warned and cautioned in respect of the ‘new charge’ (i.e. informed of the charge and given a chance to respond before a decision is made to press charges – a mandatory requirement of the Criminal Procedural and Evidence Act.)

“Every person has a right under section 50(1) of the Constitution to be informed of the ‘reason’ of the arrest at the time of the arrest.  This did not happen.”

So he’s a free man?
Yep, the state broke its own law so this case is over.

Can they come after him again?
Well, that depends. If the state finds new charges to bring against him, then yes, it’s possible. But they’d have to make sure they follow the law and if they ever search his premises again his lawyer must be present and they can’t change the charge at the last minute. Having said that, it’s not illegal for someone to call for a stay-away; that kind of mass action is not new in Zimbabwe. In the past, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) joined forces and called for mass stay-aways as the political and economic situation worsened in the 1990s and 2000s.

So will there be more stay-aways?
Again, that depends. Pastor E’s first stay-away video seemed to have far greater reach than the second one, but apart from his own popularity, other factors also contributed to the success of last week’s stay-away. At the time the civil servants were striking because their June salaries had been delayed. The government is still negotiating July’s pay dates so if the workers don’t get paid on time again, they might choose to act. Another important factor to note is that there had just been two violent riots a few days just before the stay-away, one in Harare and another in Beitbridge, the town bordering South Africa.

In Harare, minibus taxi drivers clashed with the police over the increasing number of roadblocks while in Beitbridge importers protested against a restriction on selected goods that one can bring into the country. These range from cereals to crisps to hair weaves to some building materials. The government says it’s a way to boost local industry, but small informal traders who are most affected by Statutory Instrument 64, say it’s killing their livelihood. Everyone feels the frustration of not being able to make ends meet so it’s likely that people will protest. And coming back #ThisFlag, they’ve demanded the “ban” be dropped and for government to address corruption which they say is killing the country. The government had seven days to respond, but instead they chose to arrest Pastor E.

So what’s next?
More protests. Pastor E’s work is far from done.  Wait for #ThisFlag’s next video.

Editors’ note: This story has been amended to reflect that the police searched for a helmet and baton stick on Mtawarire’s property.