Africa

Zimbabwe

Open Season on Lawyers

Attorney Jonathan Samkange was recently detained on allegations of violating immigration laws, but was soon released. (Photo: Desmond Kwande / AFP-Getty Images)

It was a case of jumping from the fire into the frying pan for Law Society of Zimbabwe president Beatrice Mtetwa and a number of her colleagues, who recently had to flee from charging, truncheon-wielding police officers. The lawyers ran for safety into the offices of the Justice ministry only to find more officers waiting there to bash them. It is not only the practices of activism, journalism and farming that carry grave risks in Zimbabwe today; the legal profession too, is now under threat.

It appears to be open season on lawyers, given the increase in the number of incidents where attorneys have been harassed and beaten in the line of duty. The government of Zimbabwe has now taken its disregard for the rule of law to a higher level.

The severe beating of Mtetwa and her colleagues outside of Zimbabwe's High Court confirmed that the country's police have become a law unto themselves. Despite the worldwide outcry about the act, which contravened local and international statutes protecting the legal profession, the Zimbabwe government has said not a word about the incident.

Lawyers argue that the police behavior is a calculated move to scare them from doing their jobs in the same way that the government has sought to silence judges, journalists and drove white farmers from their land.

"This is systematic, and evidence of a regime with no regard for the rule of law," Mtetwa told Worldpress.org.

Mtetwa, a decorated lawyer, and four others are nursing bruises and back injuries after being walloped by police officers after trying to present a petition to Zimbabwe's justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa. The petition expressed disgust over the arrest, detention and harassment of two of their colleagues on spurious charges of "obstructing the course of justice."

On May 4, human rights lawyers Alec Muchadehama and Andrew Makoni were arrested at the High Court where they had gone to represent their clients — thirteen Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) activists alleged to have been behind recent petrol bombings in Harare. The two lawyers had questioned the credibility of the police assertions about the incidents, and in so doing earned harassment and detention.

"Clearly, for any self-respecting lawyer the beating of a colleague can only instill fear because the authorities are trying to intimidate lawyers into not taking up certain kind of cases, which is particularly insidious because lawyers are human rights defenders," said Mtetwa.

"The harassment also means there are certain categories of persons in Zimbabwe who are not entitled to legal representation and any lawyer who dares to represent them is subjected to arrest and harassment. … Therefore it is the duty of every lawyer to fight to the end to retain the independence of the legal fraternity. We will do all in our power to ensure that lawyers are allowed to practice without harassment or detention."

It was in the quest of promoting lawyers' independence in Zimbabwe that the aforementioned petition was to be presented by the group that included Mtetwa. The closest that they got to delivering their message was being dumped at a spot in Harare after being beaten black and blue.

It has emerged that individual lawyers are planning to sue Zimbabwe's minister of Home Affairs, Kembo Mohadi, and the commissioner of police, Augustine Chihuri, as well as individual police officers fingered in the attacks on lawyers. Such attacks have escalated in the tandem with increased government repression of opposition and civic activists.

The government lawyer who agreed to the granting of bail for Muchadehama and Makoni was beaten by the police and a prosecutor involved in the same case was harassed. Another prominent lawyer, Jonathan Samkange, was recently picked up from his Harare home at midnight and detained on allegations of violating immigration laws. He was later released.

The Law Society of Zimbabwe has a membership of between 600 and 700 lawyers. Its president, Mtetwa, is convinced that the harassment of those in her profession counts as one of many challenges facing lawyers in the country.

"The police are a law unto themselves," she said. "They can beat anyone. The silence of the judiciary shows that we are ruled by fear. So what is the point of having the separation of powers if they cannot speak out against this?"

Mtetwa also lamented that the horrific economic conditions in Zimbabwe were making it difficult for lawyers to run their businesses.

But will the government's brutal action have any impact on its international relations? "I do not think the government cares very much about how it is perceived out there," said Mtetwa. "It has been assaulting people right across the board from 2000 and nothing has happened to it. So the government has no one to fear. … They have gotten away with it in the past and will continue to get away with it."

The beating of the lawyers, which has spotlighted Zimbabwe's bloody human rights record, galvanized the Pan African Parliament early this month to vote 149 to 29 in favor of sending a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe to probe the rights' abuse allegations. Zimbabwe has an entrenched reputation for hounding, beating and even killing anyone critical of the government and its warped policies.

Political and civil rights activists and journalists have fallen victim to state-sanctioned torture in the run up to the 2008 presidential elections. Octogenarian President Robert Mugabe is fighting for his political life as he seeks to extend his rule to 2010. However his ruling party, Zanu PF, is deeply divided over the issue with one camp working to block an attempt to buy more time for Mugabe to remain in power by harmonizing the presidential and parliamentary elections. Another camp favors the endorsement of Mugabe as the sole party candidate for next year's polls, which the aging leader is largely expected to rig.

The beating of the lawyers triggered a visit to Harare by a high-powered delegation of presidents of law societies within the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), under the auspices of the SADC Lawyers Association, to express their solidarity with the affected attorneys and to call on the government to respect the rights of the legal profession. The delegation met with the attorney general, Sobusa Gula-Ndebele, Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku and the Judge President Rita Makarau as well as the representative of the commissioner of police.

Sternford Moyo, president of the SADC Lawyers Association, described the visit as successful in that regional bar leaders obtained first-hand information on the situation.

"The action by the police must also be seen as the violation of the right to the protection of the law because the first stop for a person wanting to enforce their rights is the lawyer's office," said Moyo in an interview with Worldpress.org, which was conducted in Harare. "When lawyers are subjected to intimidation and harassment because of the discharge of their function, then it becomes difficult for members of the public to access justice through lawyers. … The cumulative effect of the actions on lawyers has a serious negative impact on the observance of the rule of law in the country."

The SADC Lawyers Association is an observer on the African Union's Africa Commission for Human and People's Rights. It also submits periodic reports on rights violations to the Commission. The Association is set to discuss the situation facing lawyers in Zimbabwe at its meeting next month in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania under the theme, "The rule of law and independence of the legal profession, including the judiciary."

The privately-owned weekly, Standard (May 20), commented that the government has its back against the wall and hence has resorted to organized brutality as its only recourse ahead of the 2008 polls.

"With the highest inflation and unemployment rates in the world as well as food shortages, conditions for the majority of Zimbabweans continue to degenerate," posited the newspaper commentary. "It is precisely for these reasons that the government will increasingly resort to violence because given a free and fair contest it will require more than a miracle for the ruling party to put up a respectable showing during the polls. … Never has a nation been buffeted by so many self-inflicted crises that it has been transfixed and paralyzed and can offer no positive response."

Trustees of the Legal Resources Foundation issued a statement condemning the arrest of the two lawyers, arguing that their arrest, detention and denial of access to legal representation were in violation of the Constitution and the Legal Practitioners Act.

The statement read, in part: "… If this is not a breakdown of the rule of law, we do not know what is. The impunity with which the police have continued to behave in this and similar previous incidents involving civic society leaders has frightening implications. … In a country where the rule of law applies, the police, and any other government agency will obey court orders without question."

Writing in the privately-owned Financial Gazette (May 10) columnist Mavis Makuni argued that battering people will never right a wrong, and that the recent episode served to confirm that the government of Zimbabwe is not prepared to listen to anyone on the face of the Earth.

"The attack highlights what a tangled web of lawlessness life in Zimbabwe has become," wrote Makuni in her column 'Personal Glimpses,' asking, "How many wrongs must be committed to convince the powers-that-be that at the end of the day, brute force changes nothing. It can maim and kill fellow humans but it will never make what is wrong right."

President Mugabe and his government henchmen appear ready to bash many more people like Mtetwa who continue to speak out against injustice.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Julius Dawu.

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