January 18, 2019 8:26 am

Zimbabwe shuts down the internet as police crack down on fuel protests

WATCH ABOVE: Scores of Zimbabwean civilians including a prominent activist were detained and charged with public violence on Wednesday and others were beaten, lawyers and witnesses said, pointing to a heavy crackdown on dissent by security forces.

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Zimbabwe on Friday faced a “total internet shutdown,” a media group said, after a days-long violent crackdown on people protesting a dramatic fuel price increase. Badly injured people streamed into a hospital in the capital after alleged assaults by security forces.

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“Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history,” the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a sweeping statement lamenting the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt economic collapse.

READ MORE: Zimbabwe fuel protests end in violent police crackdown

Media group MISA-Zimbabwe shared a text message from the country’s largest telecom company, Econet, calling the government’s internet order “beyond our reasonable control.” The High Court will hear a challenge to the shutdown on Monday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

A prominent pastor and activist who faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge arrived at court, one of more than 600 people arrested this week. Evan Mawarire has called it “heartbreaking” to see the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa acting like that of former leader Robert Mugabe.

Mawarire is accused of inciting civil disobedience online. “It’s a shame what’s happening,” the pastor said.

WATCH BELOW: Activist pastor arrested amid fuel protests in Zimbabwe

International calls for restraint by Zimbabwe’s security forces are growing, while Mnangagwa prepares to plead for more investment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He announced the fuel price increase on the eve of his overseas trip, leaving hardline former military commander and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga as acting president.

READ MORE: Extreme weather, climate change concerns expected to dominate World Economic Forum in Davos

Gasoline in the economically shattered country is now the world’s most expensive. Zimbabweans heeded a nationwide stay-at-home call earlier this week in protest. Rights groups and others have accused security forces of targeting activists and labour leaders in response, with the United States expressing alarm.

The UN human rights office on Friday urged Zimbabwe to stop the crackdown, noting reports of intimidating door-to-door searches by security forces.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other cases of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks” and more. Hungry residents of the capital, Harare, who ventured out seeking food reported being tear-gassed by police.

WATCH BELOW: Fuel price hike sparks protests in Zimbabwe

Soldiers were still controlling long fuel lines in Harare on Friday, and many wary residents stayed at home. Some said they can no longer afford fares for public transport.

Injured people streamed into a private hospital in the capital. Some had broken legs. A nurse attended to a man with a broken spine.

Albert Taurai told The Associated Press he had ventured out to look for bread when plainclothes officers wearing masks beat him up, accusing him of barricading roads.

People arrested during protests wait to appear in the Magistrates court in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 16, 2019.

REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Keith Frymore, a 21-year-old security guard, had a torn lip. He told the AP a group of uniformed soldiers attacked him at work.

“I need $70 to get help here. I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

Death tolls this week have varied. Eight people were killed when police and military fired on crowds, Amnesty International said. Zimbabwe’s government said three people were killed, including a policeman stoned to death by an angry crowd.

Armed police officers guard outside activist and pastor Evan Mawarire’s house to arrest him in Harare, Zimbabwe, 16 January 2019.

EPA/AARON UFUMELI

The demonstrations amount to “terrorism,” Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said, blaming the opposition. State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces for “standing firm.”

But among those arrested are several ruling ZANU-PF party community leaders as well as a soldier and a police officer.

Zimbabweans had briefly rejoiced when Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe, who was forced out in late 2017, thinking the new president would deliver on his refrain that the country “is open for business.” But frustration has risen over the lack of improvement in the collapsed economy, which doesn’t even have a currency of its own.

WATCH BELOW: U.S. election observers rain on Mnangagwa’s parade in Zimbabwe

The U.K.’s minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, has summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador to discuss “disturbing reports of use of live ammunition, intimidation and excessive force” against protesters.

The European Union in a statement late Thursday noted the “disproportionate use of force by security personnel” and urged that internet service be restored.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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