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Interview with human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
July 09, 2009

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Read our Inside/Out with Beatrice Mtetwa

How did your experiences in 2003 with the police being arrested and beaten change the way you view your work?
It sort of made me get into the shoes of the client. When someone says 'I was beaten by the police, this happened to me' it's easier to relate to it because you know precisely what it is like. So, in a way it was good in the sense that, although I was doing human rights work, it was from a theoretical perspective. I had never really been in their shoes and the whole process you go through is so surreal, you think 'this is not happening.' It made me quite appreciate what my clients go through. When they say 'this what the police did to me' I can relate to that on a personal level.

Why have you not pressed charges against the police or even the state for unlawful assault and wrongful arrest?
I did! Pressed charges, gave statements, there were investigations. I sued, but as you know, these things never quite happen the way you expect them. Prosecution is completely out of my hands, and if the state doesn't pursue it, and you know why they are not pursuing it, you hardly have any right to do it yourself.

Do you feel frustrated by the judicial processes?
Well if you do the kind of work that I do, everyday is a frustrating day. I've been in the legal profession for 28 years, I know when things were done in a certain way, and if you know how things ought to be done and you see how they're being done, yes you get frustrated. I was a prosecutor for a long time, so I know how the prosecution department should operate, but if you see how it is being operated right now its completely different from how it ought to be done, and you get extremely frustrated. You see real criminals walking the street [with] nobody even investigating them, you see the Attorney General's Office actively trying to protect them, and you get extremely frustrated. In the last week I've been representing four WOZA women who were beaten up. I've been pushing to have the magistrate enquire into that: she must have a full report of who assaulted them, whether they're being prosecuted, why they were denied medical attention etc. The state in an endeavor to frustrate that process decides that they will withdraw charges rather than deal with the assaults on these women. You get very frustrated because these are innocent women who ought never to have been arrested. But they spent a night in custody, and the real criminals who beat them up are out there and nobody wants to touch them. Its extremely frustrating when you see subversion of the law, by the people who ought to be saying we cannot have this we should not have this, and these people must be prosecuted.

Have you ever considered giving up?
No, absolutely not. Each day I get more determined that someone somewhere will hear the cries of the human rights people in Zimbabwe and do something about it.

How does your family cope with you being in danger?
I think because my kids know that I've been doing this from literally when they could open their eyes. There isn't really the feeling that I'm in danger because they think that's what she does for a living. My son did worry a bit more than my daughter about my safety and security, but I think all round generally they've accepted that that's what I do.

What motivates you, especially when you are working in an environment that is hostile to you and the people you represent?
My attitude is that good will always prevail over evil. If I'm doing what I think is right, that's all the motivation I need and if it will make a difference to somebody, really that's all the motivation I need. Am I doing the right thing, will I be able to live with myself if I don't do it? And that's what keeps me going.

What has been the lowest point for you?
There are many low points when you do this job, but there are some times when it gets personal, when Tonderai Ndira was abducted and disappeared, and we brought an urgent application for him to be produced because nobody knew where he was. And on the day we got to go to court to argue the matter, I received a message that his body had been located in a hospital and that the police were trying to force the family to bury him without a post-mortem. This is a young man that I had worked with when I did the 2000 election petitions, very vibrant, very committed, and very alive. You know. When I got that message that yes, we've identified his body at the mortuary, I cried, and it was like 'when will this madness stop? Why should a young man like that be murdered in cold blood for his political beliefs? [I asked myself] are we making any difference at all? Is there a way we could have avoided this young man being brutally murdered? I felt very very low during that period. Listen

How do you suggest ordinary people can become more involved in improving the situation in this country?
I think if we all played our little bit however small, we actually could make a difference. The attitude of people is that they don't want to get involved, [they ask] why are you doing that? Why are you putting your life in danger? But if a lot of us were involved the burden would be much lighter. There are lots of lawyers in this town, but there are lots of them who will not do the kind of work that I do. If we had a lot more lawyers doing it the burden would be much lighter, and the same applies to ordinary people in the street. If in your community you see violations and the majority of you say that we will not have this in this community, it will make a huge difference. But everybody wants to sit in their little corner, quietly, [thinking] if I'm safe, I'm not going to rock the boat. Everybody should get involved and do the right thing. Listen

On the subject of the Constitution and the Constitution making process, do you believe that the current process will result in a document crafted with the well being of Zimbabweans in mind?
Not if politicians are allowed to drive the process. But if we do come out with one like that I don't think we should all go out there and think that it will solve our problems. We do have a Constitution right now, yes it is not the best of Constitutions, but it has provisions that are supposed to protect certain basic rights. And we all know that that Constitution, however flawed it is is not being fully adhered to. That's why we are having people abducted, we all know that it is unlawful, and nothing happens to them [the abductors]. We all know that basic rights are being denied to people, so I don't think that we should think that if we have a good Constitution it necessarily will mean that its provisions will be implemented. We could have a very good Constitution, you could go to court to get your court order and if it is not obeyed what happens? I think we need to change the culture of how we do things. [We need to] make sure that those tasked with interpreting the Constitution, are people of integrity. People who understand that if Constitutional provisions are violated and there's a court order, there has to be follow up, and anyone doing the violating must face the consequences.

What would you like to see in a new Zimbabwean Constitution?
I definitely would like to see provision for independent oversight institutions. Where we will be absolutely certain that the people who run our police force are not political appointees, with political allegiances, where the people who run our courts are people of integrity, they are impartial, the apply the law on everybody across the board without feat or favour. I'd like to see an electoral process that is run independently by people who understand that free and fair elections are not a favour. They ought to be the basic standards of what Zimbabweans are entitled to.

How has the formation of the GNU affected your work?
I'm sorry to say that it hasn't affected my work. In the sense that if you go to court [or] the police station nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing has changed. As I was saying was in court with women who were beaten up, in June, by the police, the police [who beat them up] are known, and nobody is doing anything about it. They had visible injuries, one had a fractured bone in her hand, she's [wearing] a cast, and the police refused them medical attention. When doctors came to the police station they refused to [allow] the doctors to even just look at them or give them some painkillers. This is the kind of thing we thought wasn't going to happen after the Inclusive Government was formed. In the case of the abductees, you say to yourself, for six [or] seven months we've gone through virtually every court in Harare with them, we've sad the same thing that these people were abducted, tortured and denied basic rights and that is unlawful and it must be dealt with. The Attorney General defended that all the way, until we got to the Constitutional Court in the seventh month and that's when the Attorney General's office says yes we accept that it was illegal, so the first thin you ask your self is, why has been defending this all along? Why is there no court that [before we got here] said that this is illegal, because we've argued that this is illegal from day one. For me that means its business as usual in the judiciary, nothing has changed.

Do we have an independent judiciary?
Th magistrates, if left alone, are generally independent, they try to apply the law except for a few, one or two. But on the whole one is likely to get justice in the magistrates court better than the Superior courts, which is unfortunate. We do have a few independent judges in the High Court, but that is not to say that they have no fear, maybe there's one who doesn't care about the fear side of it but even the independent ones do have fears, because nobody want to rock the boat.

On the topic of Jestina Mukoko, can you comment on her case so far?
Probably not, except to say that it is another case that demonstrates that the signing of the GPA didn't change much. Her abduction occurred after the GPA had been signed, it's the kind of thing you thought wouldn't happen, and if it did, something would happen to those who did it. Instead we got an affidavit from a Minister saying we are not going to tell you who did it, because my boys did it, and that's scary. Listen

Do you believe that the GNU will deliver on the deliverables that were set out in the GPA?
I think we're beginning to see the political bickering, and unless SADC comes out strongly in favour of implementation, which it hasn't really been able to do to date, I'd be very surprised if the GNU delivers what is expected of it.

Who then is failing? Who's not doing their part?
I think there is resistance. Everybody has seen resistance in the way the GPA is being implemented. When you get parties to the GPA bickering over basic things like [laws that have been repealed] and court orders are deliberately and brazenly ignored. You can see that the commitment to make this thing work is not there.


Audio File

  • Tonderai Ndira
    Language: English
    Duration: 1min 50sec
    Date: July 09, 2009
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 1.68MB

  • Get involved
    Language: English
    Duration: 24sec
    Date: July 09, 2009
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 377KB

  • Jestina Mukoko
    Language: English
    Duration: 58sec
    Date: July 09, 2009
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 558KB

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