Free Zimbabwe’s lion heart

2013-03-24 10:00

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"That woman has the heart of a lion.”

I recalled the words of a Zimbabwean human rights activist when I heard about the arrest last Sunday of Beatrice Mtetwa, the country’s foremost human rights lawyer.

In her typically fearless manner, Beatrice demanded a search warrant from police who were raiding the Harare home of her client Tabani Mpofu, the legal adviser to Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.

The police were unable to produce the search warrant.

She then demanded an inventory of the property the police were confiscating.

They were unable to provide that. Police claim that she shouted at them and recorded their actions using her cellphone.

A scuffle ensued when police tried to get hold of the cellphone.

She was then arrested along with her client, Mpofu, and three other officials working in Tsvangirai’s office.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights immediately filed an urgent application for her release.

High Court Justice Charles Hungwe granted the order before midnight on Sunday.

But police refused to comply with the court order and Mtetwa remained in custody.

On Wednesday, she was brought before a packed courtroom and denied bail by Harare magistrate Marehwanazvo Gofa, who ordered her to be kept in custody until April 3, which means she will spend the Easter weekend in jail.

The timing of Mtetwa’s arrest is particularly disturbing.

In the words of Nicole Fritz of the Southern African Litigation Centre: “Mtetwa’s arrest comes on the heels of a referendum to endorse a new constitution that, whatever its other limitations, contains strong protection of the rights of those arrested and detained. Constitutions are works-in-progress, to be given vigour and dimension by those who seek to uphold and extend their protections. Mtetwa might have been relied upon to breathe life into the new constitution.”

For almost three decades, Mtetwa has been a thorn in the side of the Zimbabwean security establishment.

She has defended members of the opposition, journalists, peace activists and citizens victimised by corrupt government officials.

She has been involved in every major political trial in recent years and prominent activists who she defended include Jestina Mukoko, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, Roy Bennett and others.

Among her lesser-known cases are those of the many black farmers who lost their land as a result of illegal invasions.

In her own words: “One of the greatest myths the Zimbabwean government has perpetuated is that land was only taken from white farmers. Many blacks were dispossessed and I have the documentation to prove it.”

Zimbabwean feminist activist Isabella Matambanadzo describes Mtetwa as the best lawyer in the country.

“She is an expert on media and constitutional law and can walk into any police station in the country and get things done. In our country, where people are so disempowered, this is very important.”

Mtetwa is the recipient of a string of international awards, including the International Press Freedom Award (2005), the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize (2009) and the International Human Rights Award of the American Bar Association (2010).

We need to encourage the leaders of this continent to keep the headlights shining on Zimbabwe’s security establishment so that in the forthcoming elections, they cannot repeat the atrocities of 2008.

» Sisulu is a writer and human rights activist

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