By Fazila Mahomed
With Zimbabwe’s socio-political and economic state rapidly deteriorating, there is no sign of relief as at least a dozen human rights lawyers have been arrested and arraigned before the courts.
The recent refusal by a Harare magistrates court to allow lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa to be the lead counsel in detained journalist whistleblower Hopewell Chin’ono’s case has drawn widespread international condemnation.
Mtetwa, a renowned human rights lawyer, was on August 18, 2020 found guilty of contempt and scandalizing the court after the court said she had:
“… portrayed Chin’ono’s arrest as an abduction by state security agents in a bid to spark world outrage.”
Presiding magistrate Ngoni Nduna recommended the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ) withdraw her practicing licence and further instructed the Prosecutor General to institute contempt of court proceedings.
An increasing number of organisations related to human rights and law have pledged solidarity with Mtetwa, condemning the country’s judiciary for the manner in which they handled her case.
Freedom Under Law (FUL) executive director Nicole Fritz described Mtetwa as “not only supremely skilled but brave, fearless and indefatigable”.
Mtetwa has been providing legal defence to those targeted by the Zimbabwean government, first under Robert Mugabe, now under Emmerson Mnangagwa, for well over 20 years.
According to Fritz: “Her (Mtetwa’s) clients haven’t only been human rights activists or opposition politicians, but ironically the war veterans too. She’s been jailed, even beaten in the past.
“And yet the ruling is still breath-taking for its abject vindictiveness.”
Mtetwa’s spirit remains strong.
She told Daily Maverick: “Of course, my spirit will be dampened where I’m treated as if I am the accused when I am merely defence counsel.
“If I have erred, why do you (magistrate) punish the accused person (Chin’ono)?
“Why do you not ask the accused person if they want to change their counsel? Why does the court want to decide for him?
“Surely a magistrate has no power to order that I be prosecuted where there hasn’t even been an investigation.
“You can see that everything is being done from back to front as opposed to presumption of innocence. I’m afraid they will use this for younger lawyers in order to intimidate them, particularly human rights lawyers,” Mtetwa said.
The Bar Council of England and Wales (The Bar Council) and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) condemned the ruling against Mtetwa.
They have called upon Nduna to “immediately revoke the judgement”, and urged Zimbabwean authorities to ensure full compliance with their duties under the United Nations basic principles on the role of lawyers.
The Bar Council and BHRC also exhorted Zimbabwean authorities to ensure that lawyers are able to perform their professional functions, “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference nor threat of prosecution or other sanctions”.
Mtetwa welcomed the support, saying, “It just shows how unprecedented this ruling was.
“It is being frowned upon by the entire civilised legal community. It simply doesn’t make sense and makes me feel that yes I’m being persecuted by the state for doing my work.”
Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs minister Ziyambi Ziyambi denied any wrongdoing on the part of the government. He dismissed Mtetwa’s actions as grandstanding.
“A good lawyer follows the due process of the court and doesn’t appeal to the political process,” Ziyambi claimed.
“If you go to court, the moment you start appealing to the political process you are interfering with the court process and you then turn around and say that the executive has captured the judiciary.”
Since the beginning of the lockdown in Zimbabwe on March 31, at least a dozen lawyers have been arrested and charged while some were released without charge.
On August 19, lawyer Doug Coltart was in court, accused of “plotting to foment civil disobedience”, after he and four trade unionists were caught in possession of Paulo Freire’s book: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Coltart told Daily Maverick: “There is clearly a very sustained attack on the legal profession as evidenced by what has happened to Beatrice, the various criminal prosecutions brought against myself and more than 10 other lawyers just in the past year.
“It’s very concerning, the chilling effect it has generally on the legal profession and people’s access to justice because with all of these prosecutions against lawyers, fewer and fewer lawyers will be willing to take up these kinds of human rights cases.”
Both Mtetwa and Coltart were not able to attend any of Chin’ono’s bail hearings during last week because Mtetwa has been representing Coltart.
Earlier this month, human rights lawyer Obey Shava was detained together with his three clients, who are MDC Alliance activists.
They were arrested while together, on their way to Harare Central Police Station to report as part of their bail conditions.
The three female activists who include member of parliament Joana Mamombe and youth leaders Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova were out on bail after they were arrested in May and accused of staging their own abduction.
Since the beginning of lockdown in March, lawyers Tendai Biti, Thabani Mpofu, Tapiwa Makanza, Admire Rubaya and Miriam Chiba have been arrested on varying charges, all related to dissent. — Daily Maverick