Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who has defended peace activists, journalists, opposition candidates, farmers and ordinary citizens arrested and prosecuted by the government of Robert Mugabe, appeared at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on April 25, discussing her ongoing efforts to use the country’s laws and court system to defend clients against politically-motivated charges that seem aimed at deterring opponents to Mugabe’s three decades of rule.
Mtetwa spoke on a panel after the screening of a new USIP-funded documentary film, “Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law.”
In the film, produced and directed by independent filmmaker Lorie Conway and shot in Zimbabwe last year, Mtetwa describes her determination to harness the law to defend victims of political repression: “I will keep trying, and I’m not going to stop….This has to be done. Somebody’s got to do it.”
Conway said the film uses rule of law as a framework for telling the turbulent story of Zimbabwe. It will be shown internationally, and DVDs will be distributed throughout Zimbabwe.
Mtetwa was arrested by Zimbabwean police on March 17 after she demanded to see a search warrant during a raid on a client. Charged with obstructing justice, she was held in jail for eight days, then ordered released on bail. The charge is pending. It is not the first time Mtetwa has faced direct pressure by Zimbabwe’s security forces; she was beaten after a 2003 arrest. Mtetwa called the recent arrest “bizarre” and apparently part of a backlash against those, including her client, investigating official corruption in Zimbabwe. In an interview before the USIP meeting, Mtetwa characterized her arrest as “a warning to lawyers” who take on sensitive cases.
Mtetwa’s current legal challenge comes at an important moment in Zimbabwean politics. An overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans last month approved a new constitution with a bill of rights, a development welcomed by international human rights observers. Mugabe has the upper hand in a power-sharing arrangement with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, and Mugabe’s allies control the security forces. The power-sharing government was created after the widespread killings, beatings and torture of regime critics that undermined the last national election in 2008. The next election is expected later this year.
But Zimbabwe is already experiencing a “clampdown on civic organizations that are engaged in voter registration and mobilization campaigns,” as the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights reported earlier this month following a mission to the country. The RFK Center, though commending the new constitution as a significant advance, criticized the country’s “general lack of progress on reforms”; “increased intimidation, threats, and violence against civil society”; and “violations of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information,” which now includes a ban on shortwave radios.
At the April 25 USIP meeting, the RFK Center’s Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer specializing in southern Africa, said the repression has picked up since last summer. “Persecution by prosecution,” he said, was creating a “deteriorating rule of law situation.” Alejandro Ponce, a senior economist and author of the “Rule of Law Index” at The World Justice Project, outlined Zimbabwe’s lack of governmental “checks and balances” and its heavy corruption. The World Justice Project’s global rankings list Zimbabwe as next to last in both limitations on governmental powers and in fundamental rights for citizens.
Mtetwa expressed doubt that the new constitution will foster a new approach to rule of law. “The only way we will know if it is working…is if we take cases to court,” she said. “There is a lot of fear that is not spoken about.
In providing funding for the film, USIP wanted to support “an initiative that seeks to raise awareness about the relationship of the rule of law to human rights and democracy—critical components of peacebuilding—by educating viewers about Beatrice Mtetwa’s efforts to uphold the rule of law in Zimbabwe,” said Steven Riskin, USIP’s special assistant to the president for grants. “Despite being widely honored in the international legal community, Mtetwa’s work is not widely known outside of Zimbabwe. The film of her remarkable story represents an important vehicle to educate, inform and inspire men and women around the world who face similarly daunting challenges to human dignity and the rule of law.”
At the USIP forum, Mtetwa said that through the new documentary, “Young people can know that rule of law can make a difference.” She recalled that she has defended clients not only from the opposition but also from Mugabe’s own ruling ZANU-PF party. “For me, it’s not politics; it’s law,” she said. “I don’t do politics.”