Africa

Life under Zim's 'mutilated rule of law'

Susan Njanji

As Zimbabwe approaches elections this year a human rights lawyer has vowed never to give up - even after her own arrest.

A file photograph of Beatrice Mtetwa. (AFP)

Beatrice Mtetwa spoke to journalists in Johannesburg on Friday at the screening of a film about her fight for the rule of law in Zimbabwe.

Mtetwa was arrested in March when she went to represent clients during a raid of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's office. But she has refused to buckle under in the face of intimidation.

Mtetwa's arrest for obstructing justice, a day after the country held a constitutional referendum in March, sparked international condemnation.

She is hopeful that one day she will work under normal conditions in the country.

"Things will change in Zimbabwe, whether for the better or worse, we don't know, " said the 55-year-old internationally recognised lawyer.

She holds out hope in the new constitution, which is expected to be signed into law by Mugabe soon.

"We are hoping that maybe the new constitution gives everyone a wake-up call. It has good clauses. If interpreted properly, it should bring change."

Her arrest came after Zimbabweans voted overwhelmingly for the constitution that is to enshrine civil rights and pave the way for a new government.

"I want to be able to just practise normal law like other lawyers. I do believe that historically things like these do come to an end," she said.

While her arrest came as a "surprise", she insists it did not dampen her spirits. Instead her eight days behind bars offered valuable first-hand insight into the conditions inside Zimbabwe's prisons.

Prison experience

"It gave me a personal experience. I actually think every so-called human rights lawyer should go into prison and experience things," she said.

She is planning to launch a constitutional case challenging the "inhuman" conditions in prisons.

Inmates were locked in a cell with no access to toilets for 15 hours between 3.30pm and 6.30am, she said.

"It's completely degrading," said Mtetwa, who said she spent her time in the cells offering free legal advice to female inmates awaiting trial.

The hour-long documentary—Beatrice Mtetwa & the Rule of Law—compiled by Harvard University's former Nieman fellows, captures the life of the Swaziland-born attorney and some of the cases she has defended in her two-decade career.

"Unlike a lot of other dictators, Robert Mugabe doesn't just go out and do what he wants," Mtetwa says in the film. "He first goes to Parliament and passes a law and says it's now legal to punch somebody in the nose."

Zimbabwe's former information minister Johathan Moyo says in the film, "All countries are ruled by men and women, and the law becomes what they say it is."

Film producer and director Boston-based Lorie Conway said Mtetwa had lived under a "mutilated rule of law and she is the consequence of what happens when rights are abridged".

Mtetwa, a mother of two and the oldest daughter of more than 50 children by her polygamous father, said her school teacher in Swaziland had encouraged her to press on in life as she had potential to do great things.

Asked about the rule of law in Zimbabwe, Mtetwa cited the case of high court judge Charles Hungwe who angered authorities by ordering her release after she was arrested.

"The harassment of justice Hungwe says everything there is to say about the rule of law in Zimbabwe. He gives two orders that are unpopular with certain powerful persons ... and now he is ... being hounded out of the bench."

Her problems with the authorities did not start recently, she says. In 2003, she was beaten up by police during an arrest.

She recounts how she has lost corporate clients who feared being associated with an outspoken lawyer.

Her personal safety is a source of concern, but she says she will not be paranoid about it.

"I know there are dangers involved. I will not deliberately put myself in the line of fire, but I am not going to stop living a life."

She returns to court on May 27 for her latest case.

Asked to comment on the timing of the release of the film just months before the crucial general elections, Zimbabwean journalist and co-producer Hopewell Chin'ono said a documentary on Mtetwa had been on the cards for several years.

"We are just storytelling and it's part of what we do everyday." - AFP

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