It’s almost a decade since the Gazette first reported that Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa had been beaten up and thrown into jail. And now she is behind bars again.
The Law Society and the International Bar Association have both called for her immediate release, but today she still in police custody, charged with ‘obstructing the course of justice’.
After years of international protests against Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s regime, the rule of law is still as remote as ever.
But at least Zimbabwe’s home-grown campaigners for justice, such as Mtetwa and many others, are holding the line with incredible bravery.
Mtetwa’s history is the country’s recent history in microcosm. In October 2003, she called the police to say that she had been carjacked. That was a mistake because she had defended many clients against police brutality.
The police seized the opportunity to get even, assaulting her and taking her into custody charged with being drunk. She suffered serious bruising to her face and body.
On a visit to London to accept a human rights lawyer of the year award in January 2004, she talked with the Gazette about the assault : ‘I have seen a lot of police brutality on my clients, and so in a way I was more psychologically prepared than if I had just read about it.’
Fast forward to May 2007, and the Gazette reports that Zimbabwe’s capital Harare has witnessed brutal scenes of mass beatings carried out by the police and supporters of Mugabe’s party, Zanu-PF.
Victims included Mtetwa, who by then was president of the Zimbabwe Law Society, and 80-year-old Eileen Sawyer, executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. Africans traditionally respect the elderly, so it is particularly shocking that the thugs turned their attention to someone Sawyer’s age.
The Law Society sent a letter of intervention to the government of Zimbabwe, and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the Solicitors International Human Rights Group and the Bar Human Rights Committee, as well as law societies and human rights groups worldwide, all condemned the assaults.
Job done, you might think, except Mtetwa is back at the Law Society in November 2007 saying that young people entering the profession in Zimbabwe were avoiding human rights because it is a ‘dangerous choice of law’ to practise.
‘Government-sanctioned harassment is routine,’ she said. ‘My predecessor [as Zimbabwe Law Society president] Sternford Moyo was arrested and thrown into jail three years ago and lots of law society staff have been bullied into resigning.’
She urged the Law Society membership to ‘keep the Zimbabwe story alive’ by continuing to provide support and encouragement ‘so that we know we are not alone’.
We can rattle sabres and impose sanctions, but Mugabe continues his rampage against the rule of law. There were arrests and accusations of ballot rigging during the recent referendum on a new constitution, so no change there.
And Mtetwa is back in prison, so no change there either.