He has held power in Zimbabwe for a third of a century, and today Robert Mugabe was re-inaugurated as president of the southern African nation—the result of a recent election that was free of violence but marred by widespread voting irregularities.
The continuation of a regime described by human rights organizations and other governments as repressive and lacking effective restraints on state power was a dispiriting blow to advocates of greater freedom and democracy in the impoverished country. They include Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer featured in a USIP-funded documentary about her efforts to defend clients against politically motivated charges. The film, “Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law” was screened in April at the U.S. Institute of Peace, with Mtetwa on hand to discuss her work.
The film is receiving growing international attention, even as its subject is locked in a lengthy court struggle to defend herself against the sort of charges she has long dealt with on behalf of her clients. Mtetwa faces the possibility of lengthy prison time or deportation (she was born in Swaziland) if she were declared guilty by the court.
Mtetwa was arrested on March 17 by Zimbabwean police after she demanded to see a search warrant at the home office of a client, an official in the political opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). She was jailed for eight days and later hit with 20 criminal charges, including obstruction of justice and insulting police officers. “They threw everything but the kitchen sink at her,” said Lorie Conway, the film’s Boston-based director and producer.
Amnesty International called the Mtetwa arrest “an attack on the legal profession in Zimbabwe and in particular on lawyers who have fearlessly defended human rights defenders and political activists.” The International Bar Association described it as “yet another egregious act by Robert Mugabe’s government, aimed at undermining rule of law and obstructing those who seek to protect the legal rights of citizens of Zimbabwe.” Mtetwa’s trial in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare began in June and is expected to continue into October.
Human rights observers are concerned that activists like Mtetwa as well as political opposition figures will face even greater recriminations following the election. Following a disputed 2008 election that spurred killings, beatings and torture of opposition supporters, Mugabe, 89, was prodded by leaders in the region to share power with Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader who drew more votes in 2008 but who declined to participate in a run-off amid the attacks on oppositionists. Tsvangirai, the nominal runner-up this year, became the junior partner in the government, serving as prime minister. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party continued to hold sway over the military, police and judiciary, and those institutions were never reformed despite the adoption of a new constitution.
Mugabe’s political and security machine swung into action before the July 31 elections this year. The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights reported a “clampdown on civic organizations that are engaged in voter registration and mobilization campaigns.” Election preparations were rushed, and voter rolls—a key tool for establishing electoral fraud—were not made available until the day before the election. Though Western observers were barred from the country, others noted a high proportion of voters receiving assistance on their ballots, large numbers of urban voters turned away from polling stations and printed ballots not accounted for.
Mugabe was declared to have won 61 percent of the vote and Tsvangirai 33 percent. Mugabe’s supporters also captured more than two-thirds of seats in parliament, allowing him to cast off the modest constraints he faced under the power-sharing arrangement and giving his loyalists the presence needed to change the constitution by themselves. The MDC decided not to challenge Mugabe’s victory in court, concluding its case would not be handled fairly. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, citing “substantial electoral irregularities,” said the results did not “represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people.” U.S. officials say that sanctions on Zimbabwe will remain in place.
In a conversation with Conway after the election, Mtetwa described the mood as “like a funeral. The depth of the [election] rigging is unbelievable.”
The conduct of the elections, as well as the regime’s zeal in prosecuting Mtetwa, increase the importance of the film’s message of nonviolent but tenacious pursuit of rule of law, Conway says. “Beatrice and her colleagues all need to be supported by the international community. They need to be remembered now more than ever. The world is watching.”
The film has become even more poignant in light of events, adds Steven Riskin, who manages grants for USIP. “This is a model of peaceful action on behalf of rule of law under repressive circumstances. It will have lots of resonance wherever in the world people are struggling nonviolently to secure their rights and to resolve conflicts. It can inform and inspire others who also face huge challenges to human dignity and rule of law.”
The film will reach a much wider audience in the coming months. The satellite news channel Fox Africa plans to broadcast “Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law” in October. It was screened in July in The Hague at the World Justice Forum and will be screened at two upcoming film festivals in South Africa. Conway says there are also plans to distribute DVDs of the film in Zimbabwe and—with the support of international human rights organizations—to schools in sub-Saharan Africa. Nor is Mtetwa likely to stop her own legal work to defend the rule of law. “I will keep trying, and I’m not going to stop,” Mtetwa said at the April 25 screening at USIP. “This has to be done.”