Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, who sparked a protest movement against the government of longtime dictator Robert Mugabe called #ThisFlag, was denied bail on Friday after being arrested on his sudden return from exile in the U.S.
The pastor is accused of subverting a constitutionally elected government, an offense that carries a 20-year sentence. He is also faces charges for "incitement for public violence and criminalizing the Zimbabwean flag," Mawarire's lawyer Harrison Knomo tells TIME.
Knomo says he will be applying for bail at the country's High Court on Feb. 6. "The first thing is to make sure that he is out on bail, then we can concentrate on the main charges," Knomo says, after leaving Harare's Magistrates' Court on Friday.
Mawarire, unexpectedly, inspired thousands when he posted a video with the hashtag, #ThisFlag, in April, 2016. The viral clip of him lamenting against the country's moribund economy, corruption and human rights abuses, led to several anti-government protests and large-scale strike actions that paralyzed cities around the country. "When I look at the flag it’s not a reminder of my pride and inspiration, it feels as if I just want to belong to another country" he said in the video, with a Zimbabwean flag draped on his shoulders.
The protests were unprecedented in scale and frequency, leading some to refer to the events as Zimbabwe’s Arab Spring. Economic anger was (and still is) on the rise in the country, with the government struggling to pay civil servants' salaries, and more than 4 million locals requiring food aid due to a 2016 drought that severely impacted agricultural production.
Mawarire was arrested later that year on charges of treason. But in the face of angry protests, with thousands massing outside a court in support of the pastor, Mawarire's charges were thrown out by a magistrate. Fearing for his safety, Mawarire fled to South Africa before moving to the U.S. with his wife, Samantha, and children, days after his release from prison in July 2016.
Mugabe, who has led the country with his ZANU PF party since its independence in 1980, ominously criticized Mawarire's departure, accusing him of being sponsored by foreign countries. "So beware these men of cloth, not all of them are true preachers of the Bible. I don't know whether they are serving God. They spell God in reverse," the longtime dictator said in public speech. "The Mawarires, if they don't like to live with us, let them go to those who are sponsoring them, to the countries that are sponsoring them."
The 92-year-old Mugabe's regime is notorious for its attacks on dissent: arresting journalists, suppressing voters with force, beating opposition figures and abducting known activists. In 2015, activist Itai Dzamara never returned after being taken by force into unmarked vehicle. His wife accuses the authorities for his disappearance. In the face of that, Mawarire departure lost him some support from veteran activists, angry that he fled while countless have remained and faced the fury of Mugabe's forces, South Africa's Daily Maverick reports.
Rights' groups are calling the current charges against Mawarire trumped up, criticizing the government for attempting to subvert peaceful activism in the country, yet again. " The Zimbabwean authorities are using the oldest tricks in the book by misusing the criminal justice system to target Pastor Evan Mawarire. He has committed no crime but to take a stand against human rights violations," Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa, said in a statement.
While it is not clear why Mawarire decided to return now, he told South Africa's Daily Maverick hours before he flew back to Harare that, maybe, his new-found international profile could protect him. In the Feb. 1 interview, Mawarire said he would try to unite opposition parties, while also suggesting a future role in politics. "The more I think about the options, the steps going forward, I realize you can only shout about potholes for so long. You start to realize where change comes from... it may be time to throw your hat in" he told the Daily Maverick.