African jurists rally to support Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa

Beatrice Mtetwa
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In an unprecedented show of solidarity and defence of the rule of law in Zimbabwe, Justice Willy Mutunga, Chief Justice of Kenya between 2013-2017, has joined a group of more than 65 civil society leaders from Africa to protest against the unfair treatment that prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa has suffered.

Beatrice Mtetwa was recently disqualified in her quest to represent her client Hopewell Chin’ono, a distinguished journalist who has been serially exposing grand corruption in Zimbabwe. Chin’ono has been in custody since 20 July 2020 after being arrested live on camera in his bedroom when police forcibly broke his front door to gain entry into his house.

Detained Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

When African Judges and Jurists (AJJF) proposed a statement by progressive pan-African jurists in support of Mtetwa and to protect the right of fair trial, we had not anticipated the degree of support that would come from African civil society leaders.

The decision of magistrate Ngoni Nduna to disbar Mtetwa on spurious grounds from representing her client was seen as a surprising affront and erosion of the rule of law that required a response.

It is a very unusual phenomenon in Africa to get a statement about the justice system in an African country engendering such strong feelings of injustice as has happened in relation to recent developments in Zimbabwe.

In addition to Chief Justice Mutunga signing the statement of protest, respected Professors Chidi Anselm Odinkalu (Harvard Law – Visiting), Danwood Chirwa (UCT), Dzodzi Tsikata (University of Ghana at Legon), Hugh Corder (UCT), Issa Shivji (Dar-Es-Salaam), Michelo Hansungule (ex University of Pretoria), Paris Yeros (Universidade Federal do ABC), Praveen Jha (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Reg Austin (Zimbabwe) and Adriano Alfredo Nuvunga (Eduardo Mondlane, Mozambique) also chose to sign on publicly.

At the end of it all, by weaponising the legal system and converting it into an instrument to attack the civic space and perceived opponents, the authorities in Zimbabwe discredit the legal system and erode public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, not just in Zimbabwe, but across Africa.

The African civil society leaders write that:

“By disqualifying Beatrice Mtetwa, the court has undermined the accused person’s (Hopewell Chin’ono) right to legal representation, which is guaranteed in section 70(1) (d) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, article 14(3) (b) of the ICCPR and article 7(1) of the African Charter. Subsequently, this undermines the accused person’s right to a fair trial.”

The 65 NGOs and 67 individuals who signed the statement ended by expressing concern over magistrate Nduna’s judgment arguing that:

“It undermines not just Beatrice Mtetwa’s right to practice law but it has a chilling effect on the exercise of many other associated rights, including the right to freedom of expression for lawyers, the accused persons’ right to legal representation as well as the right to fair trial.”

While Chin’ono is being charged with inciting public violence, the majority view is that he infuriated the authorities with his social media campaigns on grand corruption that has brought the country to its knees. The exposure by Chin’ono of corruption regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) that allegedly cost the country around US$60-million sucking in Namibia, the former Minister of Health, Obediah Moyo and people close to the first family of President Emmerson Mnangagwa rattled and angered the powerful.

Namibia refuted claims of supplying PPE to Zimbabwe. The close associates to the first family were arrested and are out on bail. Moyo was arrested and is out on bail. Further, he was removed from office as a minister for his role in the corruption case.

Such is the scale of corruption around Covid-19 procurements in the whole of Africa that the Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has now equated such corruption to “murder”.

It is therefore a sad indictment on the legal system in Zimbabwe that the corrupt get bail and walk the streets free, on the philosophy of “catch and release” while activists and whistleblowers such as Chin’ono languish in jail.

Ordinarily, courts must be the shield that protects these rights rather than being the sword that destroys fundamental human rights. DM/MC