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Rayner, Law Gazette (UK)
September 13, 2007
the special index page on the mistreatment of the legal profession
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.
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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
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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