Courage in the face of adversity

Desmond Browne QC reflects on the bravery of the lawyers and human rights workers in Zimbabwe in the light of the scandalous arrest of the country’s former Law Society president, Beatrice Mtetwa.

Few can have missed the publicity accorded to the handshake between Robert Mugabe, the former Jesuit schoolboy and the new Pope Francis I. Meanwhile, back in Harare the votes were being counted in the constitutional referendum needed before a new election can take place, and Beatrice Mtetwa, a former president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, was called to the assistance of a client whose home was being raided by the police. The date was Sunday 17 March 2013.

The client was a senior official in the office of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Prime Minister in the coalition government with Mr Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. Beatrice asked the police to produce a valid search warrant and an inventory of the materials seized, and was then arrested for obstructing the course of justice. To her concern her mobile phone, which contained legally privileged texts, was seized. She was then handcuffed and held in an unmarked police car while the search continued.

That Sunday evening, Beatrice was held at Harare Central Police Station and a statement taken from her under caution. Colleagues from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights applied urgently to Mr Justice Charles Hungwe for her immediate release. The judge made the order, but when it was served on the police at 2.30 the following morning, they refused to comply.

Even though incidents of this kind are far from unprecedented in Zimbabwe, it was only natural that, when the news of Beatrice’s detention reached the outside world, it caused her friends and those who had worked with her the gravest possible concern. Former judge of the South African Constitutional Court, Johann Kriegler, at once left for Harare, and in London, Maura McGowan QC, appalled by her treatment, issued a statement on behalf of the Bar Council calling for her release. EU diplomats, debating the future of sanctions in Zimbabwe, went straight into action.

Astounding resilience

As Maura stated, the Bar Council is proud of its close and long-standing relationship with both Beatrice and the Law Society of Zimbabwe. All those who have had dealings with them have been astounded by their courage and resilience in the teeth of every imaginable (and some unimaginable) threats to the rule of law.

I first met Beatrice in 2009 when I was part of a mission, together with Mohamed Husain, then the president of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, which visited Zimbabwe to examine the state of the rule of law in the country following the signature the previous year of the Global Political Agreement, which brought the MDC into a coalition government. Sadly we concluded that the culture of impunity on the part of the police and the state security forces, which had been noted with dismay by many independent bodies in previous years, remained unchanged. The very week we were in the country, the UN Rapporteur on Torture invited to visit by Mr Tsangvirai was put straight back on a plane to Johannesburg.

But despite the systematic assault on the rule of law which we witnessed, each one of the mission was left with an abiding admiration for the commitment of Zimbabwe’s lawyers and human rights workers. How easy it would have been for them to buckle in the face of such treatment, but never once did they appear to do so. We also noted that Zimbabwe retained the basic legal infrastructure in which respect for the rule of law would flourish in more propitious political conditions. That is why the Advocacy Training Council, with both moral and financial support from our Embassy in Harare, has now paid three visits to Zimbabwe with the object of creating a corps of local advocacy trainers in not just Harare, but Bulawayo and Mutare as well. It is encouraging that this initiative has now engaged the support of the local judiciary, and Mrs Justice Mary-Anne Gowora, a Supreme Court Judge with oversight of training for the profession, will be coming to London in May to meet those in the Inns in charge of continuing legal education and to attend a New Practitioners’ weekend course run by Gray’s Inn.

Since it is a story which should never have started, one can hardly call it a happy ending, but on Monday 25 March, Mr Justice Musakwa ordered Beatrice’s release on bail and overturned the decision of a magistrate that she was likely to interfere with police investigations. The judge noted that though Beatrice was of a forceful, if not combative personality, she had remained professional in carrying out her duties. She had spent eight nights in jail.

The last contact I had with Beatrice was in 2012 when she emailed me urging me to visit the 14th century ruins of the royal city of Great Zimbabwe. As I walked round the relics of a great civilisation, I reflected that when Zimbabwe is great again, it will be due to Beatrice and those like her.

Desmond Browne QC is joint head of 5RB

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