Harare - A court in Zimbabwe on Wednesday freed a pastor who organised the largest nationwide strike against the government in nearly a decade, ruling that police violated his rights.
Magistrate Vakayi Chikwekwe told a packed courtroom that the decision to bring new charges in court against Evan Mawarire was unconstitutional.
Mawarire was originally charged with inciting violence when he was arrested on Tuesday, but prosecutors just before his court appearance on Wednesday changed it to more serious charges of attempting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government.
Mawarire's lawyer protested that the last-minute change was unconstitutional and the magistrate agreed.
Hundreds of singing supporters greeted Mawarire's release.
Dozens of supporters who packed the courtroom's public gallery had laughed in derision when the prosecutor announced the new charges, which could have brought Mawarire 20 years in prison.
During the day, hundreds of supporters outside the Harare Magistrates Court, many wearing the Zimbabwe flag, sang in defiance. Activists also chanted slogans and prayed.
Riot police and water cannons and riot police surrounded the court.
Mawarire came to prominence with a social media campaign called #ThisFlag in which he urged Zimbabweans to reclaim their flag by urging President Robert Mugabe's government to properly manage the country's battered economy.
Many people answered Mawarire's call on social media last week for a job boycott to protest dismal economic conditions. It was the largest such boycott in Zimbabwe in nearly a decade.
Another boycott had been called for Wednesday, but the response appeared muted. The government has warned organisers of further protests that "they will face the full wrath of the law."