Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Lawyers Under the Cosh

The regime appears to be trying to deter lawyers from representing opposition activists.
By Joseph Sithole
Lawyers seem to be the latest victims of the current wave of state-sponsored intimidation and violence, in which opposition leaders and activists have been arrested, beaten or tortured in police detention on spurious charges.



The most high profile lawyer to fall victim to the campaign was the president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, Beatrice Mtetwa, on May 8.



She was amongst a group of lawyers who had gathered outside the High Court in the capital Harare to protest the detention by police earlier of their colleagues, Alec Muchadehama and Andrew Makoni, who were seeking the release of their clients, opposition activists.



Mtetwa and four colleagues were bundled into a police van and later brutally assaulted in broad daylight.



Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold combined presidential and parliamentary elections in March next year. In the past, these ballots have been marked by unbridled violence, which, according to human rights organisations, in 2000 claimed the lives of about 200 opposition activists.



A Harare lawyer said the arrest of lawyers was aimed at intimidating them and also instilling fear in the opposition.



“Lawyers will be afraid to represent opposition activists. If that happens, it would be a major victory for ZANU PF. [Also], if lawyers can be beaten in broad daylight, how many people can dare venture out when they know there would be no one to represent them?



“It is a campaign of terror which has assumed a new dimension where even lawyers are seen as political activists.”



An activist of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, in the poor suburb of Mabvuku suggested that the pressure being heaped on lawyers also discouraged people from seeking their help, “In the end, nobody would like to be associated with so-called regime change agents.



“Lawyers are not a power base for any party. It is their intermediary role which the government is trying to destroy in its fight with the MDC.”



But he disputed the claim that lawyers were being targeted as a group, saying it was only the brave few taking cases involving the opposition who were being singled out.



The attorney general, Sobusa Gula Ndebele, said he didn’t have information about the beating of lawyers, and there has been no official comment President Robert Mugabe or any other government officials.



Mugabe’s silence contrasts with his cavalier response to the beating in police custody of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters following an aborted rally on March 11.



Mugabe afterwards told an emergency meeting of the Southern African Development Community in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - which had been called to discuss the assaults - that his government would bash those who break the law, a euphemism for those who oppose him.



Most of the criticisms of the lawyers have come from government spin-doctors who accuse the Law Society of Zimbabwe of representing the interests of whites.



Chairman of the Media and Information Commission Tafataona Mahoso and other government officials, particularly Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba, writing under pseudonyms in state newspapers, have accused the society of fronting for white legal firms.



Analysts say this gives the police the mistaken impression that they are dealing with sellouts, with officers believing that they are working in defence of the national interest when going after lawyers.



The president of the Law Societies of Southern Africa, Sternford Moyo, said at least ten lawyers had been arrested in the latest crackdown. He was himself briefly detained the week before last on unclear charges.



The attacks on lawyers have provoked worldwide condemnation, which has gone unheeded by government. The Pan-African parliament based in South Africa recently proposed sending a fact-finding mission to assess the human rights situation in the country. The proposal was met with anger by the Zimbabwe government, which said it had no mandate to do so.



This in part explains recent efforts by Zimbabwe justice minister Patrick Chinamasa to divert the attention of the African Commission on Human Peoples’ Rights away from human rights violations by the government towards a distant colonial past.



Chinamasa was in Ghana last week for a session of the commission discussing human rights. He said the body should demand that Britain honour its obligation under the 1979 Lancaster House constitutional agreement, which brought about independence, to compensate white farmers for any land acquired by the state.



Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR reporter in Zimbabwe.



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