On Sunday 17 March 2013, just a few hours after the constitutional referendum, it was business as usual in Zimbabwe with the unlawful arrest and detention of Beatrice Mtetwa – a Board member of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and senior, much respected member of our legal profession.
Beatrice was attending to a client whose home was being raided and was placed under arrest after requesting the production of a valid search warrant and inventory list for materials that had already been removed from the home by the police. Police details unlawfully confiscated her mobile telephone containing privileged lawyer-client communication after handcuffing her when she protested. She was held in an unmarked police vehicle whilst the search proceeded at her client’s home and another office in the absence of legal representation.
Our Board member was subjected to several hours of waiting in police custody at the Law and Order section at Harare Central police station before a warned and cautioned statement was recorded in which she is charged with defeating and/or obstructing the course of justice under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act – section 184(1) (g). Despite earlier promises to release her into the custody of her lawyers, she was lodged in cells at Rhodesville police station at around 17:30hrs.
Her legal team filed an Urgent Chamber Application in the High Court thereafter and Justice Charles Hungwe ordered her immediate release. Lawyers served the order at Rhodesville police station at around 02:30hrs; however the police refused to comply with the Order. The Officer Commanding CID Law and Order, the Investigating Officer Detective Assistant Inspector Mirimbo, and one Superintendent Mukazhi who ordered the arrest were all made aware of the Order, and similarly ignored it.
This morning Beatrice was taken to Law and Order around 09:30hrs and continued to be held in their custody in defiance of the court Order. At around 11:00hrs, however, she was driven back to Rhodesville police station by Detective Assistant Inspector Phiri and around 5 other details, where she was dumped. Police at Rhodesville were advised that they were continuing to act in contempt of a High Court Order; nevertheless, they proceeded to forcibly lodge her in cells once again at around 11:20hrs, where she remains at present. Most recently, she was denied access to her relatives who have travelled from outside the country to be with her.
ZLHR has documented several cases involving its members and staff who were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention and similar charges of obstructing justice – all of which came to naught in the past.
We are well aware of the Machiavellian tactics of the law enforcement agents and other state institutions who have everything to fear from lawyers who represent their clients without fear or favour and insist on full compliance with the law and constitutional safeguards.
These retrogressive forces believe that such tactics will intimidate Beatrice and have a chilling effect on other human rights lawyers who continue to soldier on bravely in representing all manner of human rights defenders who have suffered serious rights violations. There is a misguided belief that by attacking lawyers, as well as their clients, positive forces who believe in a new professional way of behaving will be cowed, and civil society engagement in issues of human rights and democracy will be destroyed.
State institutions and actors must understand that lawyers are officers of the court. They have rights to carry out their professional duties without hindrance, and these rights should be understood and respected. Lawyers should not be associated with their clients’ cause and must be protected, rather than vilified and subjected to such criminal and degrading behavior.
We are here today as Beatrice’s peers, colleagues, friends and allies to let these forces know that human rights lawyers will not be intimidated, will not bow, and will not allow this to happen. We continue to stand by our Board member, we believe that she will be vindicated and that the world is watching and can see these violators and their actions.
For every Beatrice Mtetwa that these state agents and institutions put behind bars and attempt to embarrass, humiliate and punish without lawful cause, there are 10 other human rights lawyers waiting to take up the mantle.