Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies

Extended Interviews: Beatrice Mtetwa

Beatrice Mtetwa

What motivates you? And why on earth would somebody want to do your job when the ruling party keeps on stacking the legal odds so heavily against you?

Beatrice Mtetwa: Why do I do it? Well, certainly not for money, there's not much of that. I just feel very strongly that we need to continue showing up the system for what it is. We need to make sure we've got a record of this period in the history of this country. We need to litigate, we need to go to court to say the law says this, and see how it is interpreted because I feel very strongly that if anyone were to look back at this - you know, some of the cases we take to court - they have very good records to show how things were done. It is easy to say a judge is not being impartial; it's easy to say that, if you've taken a case before them and you see how they've made a decision. We go to the Supreme Court all the time with constitutional challenges, not because we expect to win. But for me it is very important that we must give the Supreme Court judges the opportunity to confirm what they are there for. We take the cases there; we know we are going to lose them, not because it's a bad case, but because the judges are politically compromised. And you are only able to say, "See what we mean?" Because the judgment will be there, it will speak for itself. And we'll be able to use it in the future to say that this person is not fit to be a judge in this new era. They should be out.

Are human rights lawyers ever threatened by the ruling party, or the police? Have you ever been harassed yourself?

You do get threatened; you do get harassed. I was beaten up one time by a policeman. I've been shoved around. But I do not consider that I've had it as bad as some of my other colleagues because, generally, the police know that if you do something to me, I'm not going to take it lying down. I'll publicize it, I'll do everything that needs to be done to be sure that everybody knows what happened to me. And also, I worked for the government in the 1980s, and you find that a lot of the people who are in these positions of authority are people that I know very well. Sometimes it's a bit difficult for those in authority to be as rough with me as they would like to be. Because they know that I am not a political person, that I'm doing this job... because it is the right thing to do, not because there is any glory or cash to it and not because I'm trying to antagonize the government. No, I'm doing it because it's a job that's got to be done.

Can you describe what happened when you were say you were beaten by a policeman?

I was assaulted by a policeman in October 2003. I had been in a car hijacking. In retrospect, I think I probably had been followed. I had an attempted hijack on the first of October in 2003 and then a second one on the 11th of October. And these were people that had been following me. And when the police were called, instead of the policeman coming there to really assist me, he said, "Oh, it's you. Human rights lawyer. Now we are going to show you who you are." They locked me up, and they said this happened to me because I was drunk. I said, "Fine, if I'm drunk, take me to have a Breathalyzer test or a blood test" - which they've got to do within two hours. But they didn't. They drove around with me, and he beat me up. His attitude was that when you talk about police brutality, you'll now be talking from experience. I wear glasses normally, and he smashed my glasses in and the glass was broken. It was actually quite traumatic, and I think that was actually the worst I've ever had in terms of being beaten up.

Have you ever been under surveillance?

Oh, yes, quite a number of times. I always feel that I am under surveillance - when they think that I might lead them to one of my clients when they don't know where he is. When Andrew Meldrum, the American journalist, said they were after him, I was under surveillance because they thought that I would lead them to where he was. I used to think this was very silly because the last thing that I would do if I knew where he was would be to drive to where he is. And it's very funny because they [surveillance people] always use the same cars; they just stick out like a sore thumb. So you're able to have a nice joy ride and check out how they're going to react in certain instances. So the job does have some light moments when some of the state officials bungle things. I'll tell you one story when they bungled big time. They wanted to deport one American evangelist, and obviously there was no basis for deporting her, but she was suspected of conniving with opposition politicians, so they started an operation they called Operation Zion. When they went to her premises to start the operation to have her deported, they left the entire file behind on her premises. She called me, and I said, "Just keep it." It was hilarious because it had everything, all their notes saying this is what we'll say she did, the entire plan... When we went to court to stop her deportation, we just used their notes saying that this has all been dreamed up. Nobody even came to defend that case.

Robert Mugabe, for all his brutality, is probably...

Oh, he's very bright, he's very effective.

It seems as if there are a multitude of functioning laws in Zimbabwe . Are they more form than function?

The most incredible thing about Zimbabwe is that it looks like it is there, like it is working, like things are being done properly. The government doesn't go out there and do things without following the law. What they do is go out there and change the law and make it to what they want it to be. So there's all this veneer of respectability, you know, of a system that works. Why is it necessary, for instance, to amend the constitution to oust the jurisdiction of the courts when agricultural land is acquired? Because the government wants to say, "We are acting in terms of the law." But is that a fair law? Of course not. The government wants to be legitimate, and for it to be legitimate, it will go out of its way to make laws that will legitimize the illegitimate. That's basically how they're doing it.

How has this affected the fairness of elections?

We've got elections every couple of years, but the electoral laws are absolutely unbelievable because they are made to suit the particular system that the government favors. The government appoints the electoral officials, who will run the elections the way they want them to be. Zimbabwe is a signatory to the election guidelines that the Southern African government community signed. When the elections came last year, we actually presented the government with a report on the elections and how unfair the whole electoral system was and how the election laws do not actually follow the guidelines that we agreed to in 2004. The government's minister of Justice responded by filing papers saying that those are mere guidelines and that we are not bound by them. Yet they are the minimum standards for the conduct of elections in the region. Why should you pass laws that do not comply with the minimum standards that you have agreed to as a region if you actually want truly independent elections?

Has the president ever said anything directly about you?

I don't think he even knows I exist.

I'd be surprised if he doesn't - everyone else does. Describe some of the things known to have happened to people in police custody.

When people are in police custody, anything can happen. You can get beaten up; you can be tortured; you can be denied access to your relatives, food, lawyer; you may not be taken to the toilet. I had one client who I went to see in prison custody; he was given torn prison uniforms that exposed his private parts, and this wasn't just torn, it had actually been worn previously by someone who had had diarrhea and it had not been washed. It's just so dehumanizing. It's not enough that you've been put in custody; they really, really want to break your spirit.

Do people in opposition groups face a lot of legal restrictions?

The problem with Zimbabwe right now is that from looking at it and considering the political landscape, one can say, yes, there is political diversity. But there's so much you can't do. The laws that the government is creating make it virtually impossible for you to function properly, whether in opposition or as a human rights defender. The Public Ordinance Security Act criminalizes normal meetings that people must have if they are in politics. That law has never been applied to people in the ruling party. So opposition politicians have difficulty just meeting their constituencies because they must first go and inform the police that they want to have this meeting. They cannot organize protest marches because the law criminalizes that. You must get authority from the police to organize a normal march. And, of course, you are not going to get that. We had the mayor of the capital city of Harare arrested a couple of years ago because he was holding a meeting with residents of Harare in counsel property; these were counsel premises. And the police went and arrested him and said it was an illegal political meeting. Fortunately, the courts refused to place him on remand because the judge said, "Well, if a mayor cannot go out and meet residents, which is what he's there to do, that's his job, then I don't know why he'd be there. The police have no business stopping this kind of meeting." So clearly, if you are in opposition - and this was an opposition mayor - the government creates by way of legislation, by way of zealousness and general harassment, a way of stopping people going to meetings. There are so many of these examples that on a practical level, opposition politicians cannot function normally.

Who makes the law in Zimbabwe today?

The ruling party currently has a majority in parliament, and obviously, whatever laws the government wants to pass, they pass... Whether the law is constitutional or not, they can disregard any protest that the law might be unconstitutional because they'll be able to railroad it through using their majority status. The constitution is very easy to change in Zimbabwe if you have at least a 75 percent majority, and the ruling party has that. So basically, the ruling party is making the laws and obviously they make laws that suit them, that ensure they continue being in power, that ensure they make life as difficult as possible for those they perceive as being in opposition or those who are opposed to how they are running the country.

How many amendments have there been to the constitution? And what effect has this had?

The constitution has been mutilated at least 17 times as of last year, and I have no doubt there will be a further mutilation. I use the word "mutilation" deliberately because the ruling party has not amended the constitution to give people greater rights, greater freedoms. With every amendment, they have eaten away at the freedoms that have been there - sometimes, in fact, to reverse the gains that have been made in court. Prior to the Supreme Court being reconstituted, we had a lot of very good constitutional judgments where the Supreme Court would interpret the constitution to give greater rights to people. Each time the Supreme Court gave a judgment that gave greater freedoms, the ruling party would run back to parliament to pass an amendment that would take away the right that the Supreme Court would have given. So we've had a lot of amendments brought in specifically to try to defeat what the Supreme Court would have given. The most recent amendment, No. 17, was basically to say that if your land is taken from you, sorry, the courts have no jurisdiction whatsoever. Whichever way you look at it, it's clearly unconstitutional because if the government takes an action against you and deprives you of certain property rights, you should be able to get a court to determine whether they are fair or not, particularly in Zimbabwe's situation, where the land issue has been used to benefit a few well-connected individuals.

How has the land issue been defined by the courts?

There are a number of cases where black farmers' land has been taken and I have been able to go to court and say there is no color imbalance that is being redressed here. If you're taking a farm from a black Zimbabwean who bought it in 1995, when the government had first choice to buy that land, and the government said I don't want it and you buy it - and you have that land taken away from you and given to a ruling party person, clearly it is wrong for that person not to have the court entertain him. Farmers cannot go to court now because Amendment No. 17 says it's outside the court's jurisdiction as far as agricultural land is concerned. So these people will never be able to challenge the right to acquire their land comparatively when in fact they were supposed to be the beneficiaries. I'm sorry, that just cannot be constitutional.

You also have a lot of clients who have been journalists.

Zimbabwe has very repressive media laws, and those laws have made it difficult for journalists to practice their profession freely in Zimbabwe. As a result, we get more arrests in the media, and I found myself having a lot more journalist cases from 2002 when new information and protection of privacy laws came in that criminalized a lot of journalistic work. If you write a story the government doesn't like, you can be arrested. The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act is a very poor name. Because it really doesn't give anybody access to information; if anything, it takes away access to information. It was this law that shut down at least four newspapers in Zimbabwe. So there's nothing that makes the media accessible. It is a very big piece of legislation; it makes it impossible to have independent media houses that can report independently because they get shut down. The government determines who gets registered [to operate] and who doesn't. Journalists can be locked up because they have reported what the government regards as falsehoods. You can go to jail for at least two years if you're convicted under that law. It forces media houses to register every two years, which is crazy because you go into the media to publish as a business. And to answer every two years as to whether or not you'll remain in operation means you actually make the media self-censoring. Journalists start to self-censor because you don't want to be without a job tomorrow. At the end of the day, this piece of legislation literally limits the flow of information in Zimbabwe because people are afraid of doing their job because they could be arrested or shut down.

What about judges? Are they subjected to the same sort of self-censorship?

The judiciary in Zimbabwe took a turn for the worse for us lawyers in 2001 when judges who were seen as independent were forced off the bench. And judges who it is generally believed look at things from the government viewpoint were appointed. For me, the system requires a complete overhaul because any judges who are there are dangerous because they are quite happy to do the politicians' dirty work, to interpret the law to suit those who made them judges. Even if there's a change, you cannot trust them. If you're willing to be used by the ruling party now, it means tomorrow you'll be willing to be used by whoever will be in the ruling party next, and that's just as bad. We need to get completely new judges who would be appointed in terms of a very transparent selection procedure.

Have judges fled the country because of judgments they've passed?

Certainly some judges have been forced to flee the country after direct threats. There was a judge who was dealing with one of the newspaper closure cases. He was threatened by people in government and he fled - literally fled the country. Those who left did so because they couldn't continue working under conditions where they were constantly under threat. The Supreme Court heard the war veterans demonstrate, and they were jumping all over the court while the court was in session, but nothing happened to those people. So clearly judges have been threatened. Even those who have remained from the old era - maybe two or so in the high courts - are afraid. They have stayed, but the freedom is just not there anymore. I don't think members of the judiciary feel that they have the freedom to really be judges, impartial judges, without interference. They know if they give judgments that aren't popular, they could lose their jobs and find themselves in deep trouble.

This interview between Alexis Bloom and Beatrice Mtetwa took place in February 2006 at a guesthouse in Harare. It has been edited for clarity.

Prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa has spent years defending Zimbabwean journalists, many of whom have been arrested for their work. Mtetwa represented journalists from the Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, until it was shut down by the government in 2003. She has also defended international correspondents, including British and American journalists arrested inside the country while reporting on Zimbabwe's increasingly controversial elections. In this interview, Mtetwa talks about her ongoing efforts to protect press freedoms and the risks her job entails, including her own arrest and her assault while in police custody in 2003. She also explains how the ruling Zanu-PF Party continues to "mutilate" the country's legislature -- it has amended the constitution 17 times -- to stay in power. In 2005, Mtetwa received the Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The most incredible thing about Zimbabwe is that it looks like it is working. The government doesn't go out there and do things without following the law. What they do is change the law to make it what they want it to be. So there's all this veneer of respectability, of a system that works.”
- Beatrice Mtetwa

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