Zimbabwe police arrest critics ahead of anti-government protests

HARARE, July 20 (Reuters) - Zimbabwean police arrested an opposition official and a journalist on Monday, accusing them of inciting violence ahead of street demonstrations planned for next week by activists who charge government corruption has exacerbated economic hardship.

The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said it feared the arrests were the start of a crackdown and intimidation of government opponents to stop the July 31 protests.

Many citizens say their economic prospects have worsened since President Emmerson Mnangagwa took over from the late Robert Mugabe following a coup in 2017. Mnangagwa says the economy is being sabotaged by local and foreign opponents.

Police said they had arrested Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of a small opposition outfit who called for the protests, which are being backed by the MDC. They also detained freelance journalist Hopewell Chin'ono.

The two were being held in police custody and faced charges of "incitement to participate in public violence," police spokesman Andrew Phiri said in a statement.

Chin'ono has gained a following on social media by being critical of the government's handling of the economy and corruption. Earlier, he posted a video of armed police entering his room and ordering him to put his phone down.

The government is wary of demonstrations after the last major protests in January 2019 turned violent and scores of people died after a crackdown by security forces.

Authorities have warned that protests violate coronavirus rules that outlaw large gatherings. They have said they plan to tighten the lockdown in opposition strongholds Harare and Bulawayo.

(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by David Gregorio)

((macdonald.dzirutwe@thomsonreuters.com; +263 4 799 112; Reuters Messaging: macdonald.dzirutwe.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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