JOURNALIST

The legal activist facing a Mugabe prison

Beatrice Mtetwa is on trial after intervening in a police raid on a Zimbabwe opposition official. Joy Lo Dico meets the lawyer who fights for ordinary citizens


As Zimbabwe prepares to go to the polls at the end of this month, a court case has been getting under the skin of the country

Beatrice Mtetwa, a leading human rights barrister based in the capital Harare, is standing trial. She is accused of obstructing the course of justice after intervening in a police raid in March on the home of an official of Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T party, the main rival to Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. The official had been investigating corruption within Mugabe’s government.

Ms Mtetwa’s case has been a cause célèbre in the country which has been under Mugabe’s rule for 33 years. She was held in a prison after the arrest. “We had hordes of visitors, people I didn’t even know,” Ms Mtetwa told the Evening Standard. “One day six bishops co-ordinated to just come and visit and pray for me.

“Even now I go in a supermarket and everybody comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, I know you’. The support is incredible from ordinary Zimbabweans.”

Her case was part heard last weekend, but was delayed. “The idea is to make sure I don’t represent these guys (the MDC-T),” she said. “And also the idea is to make sure lawyers think twice before they go out during election season. It’s part of the game of ensuring that we are sidelined and we do not effectively represent people whose rights might be affected during it.”

The election is set for July 31, and these are often bloody affairs in Zimbabwe. The last one was in 2008, when Mr Tsvangirai appeared to have won more votes than Mugabe, now 89, in the presidential poll, the first serious blow landed on his leadership.

But, after five weeks of wrangling, Mr Tsvangirai accepted the role of prime minister. Power still rests with Mugabe. More than 200 people were killed and about 10,000 injured in violence in the run-up to the election, according to Amnesty International, with most blame falling on Zanu-PF members using intimidatory tactics.

Ms Mtetwa does not define herself as a member of the opposition. “The perception is that I sit on kinds of cases where I’m a political activist,” she said. “I’m not. I’m a legal activist.”

Born in Swaziland, she moved to Zimbabwe in 1983, at first to work as a prosecutor for the government, but became disillusioned by the injustices she witnessed, in particular the relaxed treatment of crimes by Zanu-PF members. She set up in private practice in 1989, with a mission of upholding the constitutional rights of Zimbabweans against the arbitrary rule of Mugabe’s government, which has seen disastrous land reforms, high corruption and violence against his opponents.

Ms Mtetwa says she has already suffered two beatings by police, in an overnight ordeal in a car in 2003, and again in 2007. Despite pressing charges, neither case came to court. “If I’m convicted for this, I go to jail for two years,” she said.

The lawyer has represented farmers, political activists and ordinary citizens and, most famously, Andrew Meldrum, the Guardian journalist who was thrown out of Zimbabwe in 2003 for reporting state torture.

US film-maker Lorie Conway recently made a documentary about her, titled Beatrice Mtetwa And The Rule Of Law, screened in London last month and due to be shown in Washington this week, though no showing has been scheduled as yet for Harare.

While Ms Mtetwa waits for her trial, the ballot boxes are being prepared. However, even if Mugabe stands down, her work is not done. “If the MDC-T come in, we should be vigilant and hold them to an even higher standard than we are holding Zanu-PF. Why? Because they said they were different.”

Looming election: Beatrice Mtetwa says she has suffered two beatings by police. Inset, Robert Mugabe
Looming election: Beatrice Mtetwa says she has suffered two beatings by police. Inset, Robert Mugabe

Beatrice Mtetwa, a leading human rights barrister based in the capital Harare, is standing trial. She is accused of obstructing the course of justice after intervening in a police raid in March on the home of an official of Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T party, the main rival to Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. The official had been investigating corruption within Mugabe’s government.

Ms Mtetwa’s case has been a cause célèbre in the country which has been under Mugabe’s rule for 33 years. She was held in a prison after the arrest. “We had hordes of visitors, people I didn’t even know,” Ms Mtetwa told the Evening Standard. “One day six bishops co-ordinated to just come and visit and pray for me.

“Even now I go in a supermarket and everybody comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, I know you’. The support is incredible from ordinary Zimbabweans.”

Her case was part heard last weekend, but was delayed. “The idea is to make sure I don’t represent these guys (the MDC-T),” she said. “And also the idea is to make sure lawyers think twice before they go out during election season. It’s part of the game of ensuring that we are sidelined and we do not effectively represent people whose rights might be affected during it.”

The election is set for July 31, and these are often bloody affairs in Zimbabwe. The last one was in 2008, when Mr Tsvangirai appeared to have won more votes than Mugabe, now 89, in the presidential poll, the first serious blow landed on his leadership.

But, after five weeks of wrangling, Mr Tsvangirai accepted the role of prime minister. Power still rests with Mugabe. More than 200 people were killed and about 10,000 injured in violence in the run-up to the election, according to Amnesty International, with most blame falling on Zanu-PF members using intimidatory tactics.

Ms Mtetwa does not define herself as a member of the opposition. “The perception is that I sit on kinds of cases where I’m a political activist,” she said. “I’m not. I’m a legal activist.”

Born in Swaziland, she moved to Zimbabwe in 1983, at first to work as a prosecutor for the government, but became disillusioned by the injustices she witnessed, in particular the relaxed treatment of crimes by Zanu-PF members. She set up in private practice in 1989, with a mission of upholding the constitutional rights of Zimbabweans against the arbitrary rule of Mugabe’s government, which has seen disastrous land reforms, high corruption and violence against his opponents.

Ms Mtetwa says she has already suffered two beatings by police, in an overnight ordeal in a car in 2003, and again in 2007. Despite pressing charges, neither case came to court. “If I’m convicted for this, I go to jail for two years,” she said.

The lawyer has represented farmers, political activists and ordinary citizens and, most famously, Andrew Meldrum, the Guardian journalist who was thrown out of Zimbabwe in 2003 for reporting state torture.

US film-maker Lorie Conway recently made a documentary about her, titled Beatrice Mtetwa And The Rule Of Law, screened in London last month and due to be shown in Washington this week, though no showing has been scheduled as yet for Harare.

While Ms Mtetwa waits for her trial, the ballot boxes are being prepared. However, even if Mugabe stands down, her work is not done. “If the MDC-T come in, we should be vigilant and hold them to an even higher standard than we are holding Zanu-PF. Why? Because they said they were different.”