/ 22 March 2013

Feisty Mtetwa holds tightly to her smile

Beatrice Mtetwa arrives at the Harare Magistrate's Court. She has been denied bail.
Beatrice Mtetwa arrives at the Harare Magistrate's Court. She has been denied bail.

Beatrice Mtetwa seemed to be enjoying herself – dressed in a grey tracksuit, with only her socks on, and standing in the back of a police truck as it left Rhodesville police station on Monday.

Arriving at the court, with a plastic bag in one hand, containing her personal belongings, she stood in the vehicle and joked with friends, and her captors.

The celebrated human rights lawyer, who was arrested on Sunday for allegedly preventing police from searching the home of a client, was showing just the kind of defiance that has endeared her to many, and has made her a frequent target of Zimbabwe's security forces.

An urgent high court application for her release was granted by Justice Charles Hungwe at 2am on Sunday, and was presented at the police station 30 minutes later. The police refused to release her.

The official line is that she is being charged with "defeating and obstructing" the course of justice.

Her ordeal outraged many, but her response to all of it showed how used to it she is. If anything, she seems to thrive on controversy.

Rebellious streak
Mtetwa, who was born in Swaziland but moved to Zimbabwe in 1983, has built her career on defending human rights campaigners, journalists and non-governmental organisations.

In a 2008 interview with Marie Claire she traced her rebellious streak back to her childhood; her father was polygamous and she felt there was "injustice in the way

things were done" in her family.

"I was always questioning my father's authority – and [was] always getting into trouble," she told the magazine.

She was busiest after the 2000 parliamentary election, when she led challenges against the results in close to 40 constituencies.

Mtetwa is a friend of independent journalists, having rescued dozens of them – local and foreign – from arrest. The story is often told of how she saved foreign journalist Andrew Meldrum, a correspondent for the Guardian and the Economist at that time, from deportation in 2003, arriving at the airport just minutes before his aircraft took off to serve immigration staff with a court order stopping the deportation.

In 2007 she was grabbed from a protest march against the intimidation of lawyers. She was beaten and dumped at the side of a road. When she lifted her skirts to allow a ­photographer to capture the injuries she had suffered, she attracted ridicule from her opponents.

'Well-marketed brutality'
In an article earlier this month  Herald columnist Nathaniel Manheru – widely believed to be President Robert Mugabe's spokesperson George Charamba – arguing that anti-Mugabe activists use ­misfortune to draw attention to themselves, mocked Mtetwa for having "bared her inner portions to display Zanu-PF's well-marketed brutality".

Mtetwa has always known how to play the media to draw attention to rights abuses. She once told the Committee to Protect Journalists in Zimbabwe: "I always make sure that if, for instance, I'm called in the middle of the night to a scene that is potentially dangerous, I make sure that there are as many media practitioners as possible, particularly to record what will happen there."

Despite her international clout, which will only grow with each arrest, she has remained grounded. Reacting to news that the committee had chosen her to receive the International Press Freedom Award, she said: "I didn't do anything other than my job."

She has won the respect and adoration of many of her colleagues. "She has stood by many of us, it's time we stand by her," said Tawanda Zhuwarara, a member of the legal team that fought to free her this week.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, of which Mtetwa is a board member, said this week: "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."

On Wednesday afternoon Mtetwa was denied bail and was remanded until April 3.