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Rough justice
Jonathan Rayner, Law Gazette (UK)
September 13, 2007

Visit the special index page on the mistreatment of the legal profession in Zimbabwe

The tragedy that is modern Zimbabwe is epitomised by the spectacle of lawyers seeking sanctuary in the offices of the Attorney-General - before being bundled on to the back of a truck and beaten up by riot police.

The sequence of events started with the arrest of two human rights lawyers, Alec Muchadehama and Andrew Makoni. They had been arrested as they emerged from the High Court in Harare, where they had been arguing against the continued detention of 13 officials of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party in Zimbabwe.

The two lawyers were released three days later, but not before being charged with lying in an affidavit in which they had claimed there was evidence that the government had been behind a recent petrol bombing campaign. The government's motive, they had alleged, was to justify its violent repression of dissent over the previous months.

The following day, around 30 lawyers - including Beatrice Mtetwa, president of the Zimbabwe Law Society (ZLS) - met outside the High Court with the intention of marching to the Zimbabwean parliament and presenting a petition in protest against their two colleagues' treatment.

Mrs Mtetwa says that although they were doing nothing illegal, they complied when armed riot police ordered them to disperse. 'After we had walked for about 100 metres, we saw the riot police running towards us. And so we ran into the nearest building, which houses the Attorney-General's office and the Justice Ministry, believing we would be safe there. But there were more police inside the building and we were rounded up, put in to a police van and taken to a riverbed about two or three kilometres away.

'We were told to lie down on our tummies and the order was given that we be assaulted. I suffered bruises all over my arms and back, as did the other lawyers who had been bundled on to the truck with me.' She adds: 'I could not sit down or drive for two days after the assault.'

The incident last May attracted international condemnation. The Law Society of England and Wales wrote a letter of protest to President Mugabe, and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Solicitors' International Human Rights Group and the Bar Human Rights Committee released a joint statement in which they said they were 'extremely concerned' about what was reported to have happened.

But according to Gugulethu Moyo, a Zimbabwean lawyer now working with the International Bar Association in London, the protests would have fallen on deaf ears. Ms Moyo says: 'The Zimbabwe government blames the west and the UK in particular for all its ills. People opposed to human rights violations are routinely accused of being agents of the west.'

She adds: 'The police and the army are highly politicised and, along with the ruling Zanu PF party, are motivated by a naked hunger for power. Lawyers who expose the arrest and torture of activists are an embarrassment that must be silenced. This is why nobody was charged after the lawyers were beaten up in May. The police brutality was officially sanctioned.

'But it's a worrying development nonetheless - it was the first time that the police has acted so publicly. It's as though the government no longer cares about its image in Africa and the rest of the world.'

Such contempt for the rule of law and its defenders - the country's lawyers - is commonplace in President Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Joseph James, a former president of the ZLS, says: 'The police have been encouraged not to respect lawyers. You can arrive at a police station and simply be refused permission to see your client. You can go for habeas corpus, find a judge, get an order and serve it - and still the police can decline to obey.'

Finding an impartial judge was often a challenge, too. 'Many High Court judges have compromised their positions by accepting farms that were previously white-owned. Their title is precarious and dependent upon government approval - often because they have borrowed money at a concessionary rate from the government bank. When they have a case before them that is against the government, they might try to be fair, but it would only be human if they found for the government.'

Mr James adds that sometimes lawyers fail to show up in court at all because they are under arrest for any one of a range of charges, including sedition. This was the experience of his predecessor in the post of ZLS president. Such intimidation, he says, has become an occupational hazard for many lawyers in Zimbabwe. War veterans are encouraged to attack solicitors or chase magistrates from their courts when decisions are deemed disloyal to Zanu PF.

Mr James continues: 'Fuel shortages make it difficult for lawyers, clients and witnesses to get to and from courts. There are no recording machines in court, so no complete and fair records of trials. And over the last 12 months in one particular prison, 167 prisoners have died - that is around one death every two days - before even getting to trial. They have died from poor diet, lack of medical care and general mistreatment.'

There is no sign that things are about to get better. President Mugabe has just signed into law the Interception of Communications Act, which makes legal the government's tapping of telephones, opening of post and monitoring of emails and other Internet communications.

Lawyers and opposition politicians have described the act as unconstitutional and an attack on human rights. The government, as is its practice, has ignored the lawyers' protests. The legislation is justified, it claims, because the measures it makes legal are necessary to protect the country from international terrorism and espionage. For 'international', read 'the UK' - the former colonial power that President Mugabe constantly tells his people is poised to resume control of Zimbabwe.

Jeremy Ferguson, a solicitor at Devon firm Chanter Ferguson, visited Zimbabwe earlier this year to deliver training in civil mediation on behalf of the Devon & Exeter Law Society, which is twinned with the ZLS. He says the court system in Zimbabwe has ground to a halt. 'It can take three years to type up a verdict, the clerks must be bribed to keep cases moving and magistrates are doubling as taxi drivers to get witnesses to court. Imposing fines on the guilty is increasingly unworkable - by the time the fine is paid, inflation at 4,500% has rendered the punishment meaningless.'

He adds that although he was never threatened himself, he has seen the consequences of resistance to the regime. 'One prominent lawyer, according to a letter I saw from a certain ministry, was quite clearly on an official death list.'

The Zimbabwe High Commission in London was contacted for a statement regarding the rule of law in Zimbabwe and the police's mistreatment of the protesting lawyers, but did not respond.

The commission, sited on The Strand, is the unwilling venue for a protest that has happened every Saturday since 12 October 2002. Between 2pm and 6pm, a weekly vigil is held on the pavement outside to draw attention to the violations of human rights and other abuses that occur daily in President Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Zimbabwe continues to unfold. Around 100,000 refugees per month - according to some estimates - are now fleeing the country to try and find a new start in South Africa. Some have been shot dead as they attempted to cross the border, others have been exploited as cheap labour once they got there, but most have been rounded up and deported back to the miseries of home.

The authorities, according to Beatrice Mtetwa, are increasingly working to prevent the country's lawyers from alleviating these miseries. She says: 'The various forms of harassment have included denial of access to clients, refusal to disclose the whereabouts of clients, chasing lawyers out of police stations, assault, arrest and detention.'

But perhaps that is to be expected in Mugabe's Zimbabwe. It was in March of this year when Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC, and 30 of his officials, suffered severe injuries at the hands of the police. An unrepentant President Mugabe, talking of his critics, said: 'They will get arrested and bashed by the police.'

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