• A Zimbabwean preacher leading the biggest protests against President Robert Mugabe in a decade was charged on Tuesday with inciting public violence but, in a video recorded before his arrest, urged supporters to go ahead with demonstrations.

    Baptist minister Evan Mawarire has become a household name in Zimbabwe since he started a social media campaign in April that has tapped into mounting public anger over corruption, high unemployment and economic woes.

    Africa's oldest leader at 92, Mugabe has led the former British colony since independence in 1980. Since then it has gone from being one of the continent's most promising countries to an economic basket case with a reputation for rights abuses.

    After initially ignoring his grainy online videos, shot on a cellphone and calling for a mass 'stay at home', Mugabe's administration has started to push back, especially after they attracted support from thousands of unpaid civil servants.

    "Yes, he has been arrested for inciting public violence and disturbing peace," Mawarire lawyer Harrison Nkomo told Reuters. He said police had raided his client's Harare home, office and church.

    Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba was not available to comment on the charges.

    A copy of a search warrant seen by Reuters said police believed Mawarire was in possession of a stolen police helmet, button stick and "other subversive material" that could be used to incite public violence.

    The law under which the bespectacled 39-year-old has been detained carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. According to Zimbabwean law, he must appear in court within 48 hours. He was summoned by police early on Tuesday morning.

    Mawarire said on Tuesday he broke no law in calling for a one day shut-down last week. That protest closed businesses across the southern African nation, the biggest strike since 2005.

    International Crisis Group analyst Piers Pigou said Mawarira's #ThisFlag movement had rattled Mugabe's government but was still a long way from becoming the first "Arab Spring" south of the Sahara.

    "It's provoked a certain amount of panic from the authorities given the scale of the stay-away," Pigou said. "But a stay-away doesn't translate into active support for rebellion against the regime."

    GANDHI COMPARISON

    More protests are planned for Wednesday and Thursday as part of #ThisFlag, which aims to appeal to Zimbabweans' national pride and exploit the widespread use of social media in the country.

    In a pre-recorded video posted on Twitter under the #ThisFlag hashtag after he was charged, Mawarire said his arrest should not stop Zimbabwe's 13 million people going ahead with demonstrations.

    "No matter what has happened to me, you and I have done well. We have stood up and raised our voices to build this nation," Mawarire said.

    Last Friday police summoned and arrested Prosper Mkwananzi from social media group Tajamuka (We refuse) on charges of public violence. Mkwananzi was released on bail on Monday.

    Mawarire launched #ThisFlag in April after struggling to pay school fees for his two daughters or buy bus fares. His complaints struck an immediate chord with Zimbabweans and 120,000 people watched his video in its first week.

    Within three months, some have even started likening him and his adherence to non-violence to Indian anti-colonial hero Mahatma Gandhi, who started becoming politically active as a lawyer in neighboring South Africa in the early 1900s.

    "There is nothing wrong from learning from the people like Gandhi because they achieved a lot of things in pushing the non-violent aspect of things," he said in an interview this month with the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper.

    "If we fight violence with violence, the result will be more violence," he said. "There comes a time when we have to use a different strategy to that being used by the people we are confronting."

    (Additional reporting Pete Vernon; Editing by Joe Brock, Ralph Boulton and Sonya Hepinstall)

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