She’s an albatross around the neck of the legal profession”; “The belly of the beast”; the head of a “guild without lawyers”. These are the accusations laid at the door of Beatrice Mtetwa by Zimbabwe’s state-run newspaper.
Along with a band of courageous lawyers, Mtetwa, the first female president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ), has put her life at risk – enduring beatings, kidnappings and torture – in an attempt to see the rule of law upheld.
But Mtetwa retains a sense of humour. “I suppose the press reports can be seen as flattering when they put things like this on their front pages,” she says.
It is the personal assassination that hurts. “They’ve called me ugly, dull, lonely and dejected. It’s discriminatory. I can’t imagine they would have done the same thing to a male Law Society president,” she adds with irony.
But the charges against her also give Mtetwa hope. “It shows that the Zimbabwean government have taken note that lawyers will no longer put up with how the rule of law is being dismantled,” she says.
The war of words raged by Robert Mugabe’s government has been ongoing for more than a decade, but the physical abuse is a more recent phenomenon.
The “physical harassment” against lawyers, as Mtetwa tamely puts it, started when Mugabe’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act was brought into force in 2002.
The act curtailed freedom of the press and saw scores of journalists, including The Guardian’s Andrew Meldrum and recently ‘the Telegraph two’ – reporter Toby Harnden and photographer Julian Simmonds – endure harassment at the hands of government officials.
This loss of freedom of expression came as the Zimbabwean people also lost their core human rights following Mugabe’s Agricultural Policy, which was spun as repossessing the land for the blacks from colonial society.
The right to equality in front of the law vanished immediately through the 2002 Agricultural Policy. This was followed swiftly by the censorship of political views, with opposition media being closed down.
The Zanu-PF government even turned on its own lawyers, physically abusing them when they tried to uphold the human rights of defendants such as foreign journalists.
Mtetwa acted bravely on behalf of these journalists, making her a government target.
In May, Mtetwa and three other lawyers were unlawfully detained after a peaceful protest outside the Zimbabwean High Court. The four were loaded into a police truck, driven 3km and severely beaten with batons in full view of the public.
“After this physical harassment we looked to bring charges against the police that had attacked us but were blocked at every turn when trying to report the incident to the police,” says Mtetwa.
Although Mtetwa finally managed to get the papers accepted she knows that nothing will be done. “It doesn’t matter that we know who the attackers are as the court simply asks for the police to undertake an investigation into what happened before moving the case forward,” Mtetwa says. “The police, however, will never complete that investigation and the judiciary is too weak to do anything about it.”
Mtetwa claims there have been many other assaults against lawyers. “A colleague was arrested for trying to plot against the government,” she recalls. “He was beaten up, tortured and had to be hospitalised after six days in custody, without proper food and water, though the law only allows for 48 hours.”
In early October, Mtetwa’s band of lawyers managed to get the High Court to accept the need to hear an order prohibiting the Commissioner of Police and members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police from hindering legal practitioners from gaining access to their clients and carrying out their lawful duties.
The likelihood of a just outcome appears slim and, as Mtetwa argues, their harassment and that of the Zimbabwean people continues.
The situation appears dire for the rule of law in Zimbabwe. Mtetwa and the LSZ have turned to the international community in a desperate attempt to apply pressure on Mugabe’s regime.
The international campaign kicked off in early October with the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, speaking out on human rights at the American Bar Association’s London conference.
Then, just two weeks ago, Mtetwa and her colleagues flew to London, after being given a platform by the Law Society of England and Wales to speak out. And the Bar Council put human rights at the heart of its annual conference last Saturday (3 November).
Mtetwa has felt the response of the international community, and especially the UK, deeply.
“The British have been sympathetic to our situation but Zimbabwe’s government see Gordon Brown and the British Government as causing the situation and making it worse,” she explains. “But if it wasn’t for the international community, such as Britain, highlighting our plight and putting pressure on Mugabe’s regime we would not be able to operate even as we are.”
Mtetwa urges: “I would call on lawyers and the international community to continue being visible and report what they see, to continue protesting against any regime which does not uphold human rights. Pressure is the only way we can ensure democracy and a fair rule of law.” –
Name: Beatrice Mtetwa
Organisation: Law Society of Zimbabwe
Sector: Human rights
Beatrice Mtetwa’s CV
1981: Law degree (BA), University of Zimbabwe
1984-89: State prosecution trainee, Republic of Zimbabwe
1989-90: State prosecutor and bar advocate, Republic of Zimbabwe
1990-95: Associate, Kantar & Imerman
1995-present: Partner, Nyambirai & Mtetwa Legal Practitioners
2006-present: President, Law Society of Zimbabwe