Zimbabwe’s downward socio-economic and political spiral picks up speed


With Zimbabwe’s socio-political and economic state rapidly deteriorating, there is no sign of relief as at least a dozen human rights lawyers have been arrested and arraigned before the courts.

The recent refusal by a Harare Magistrates Court to allow lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa to be the lead counsel in detained journalist whistleblower Hopewell Chin’ono’s case has drawn widespread international condemnation.

Mtetwa, a renowned human rights lawyer was on 18th August 2020 found guilty of contempt and scandalizing the court after the court said she had:

“… portrayed Chin’ono’s arrest as an abduction by state security agents in a bid to spark world outrage.”

Presiding magistrate Ngoni Nduna recommended the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ) withdraw her practising licence and further instructed the Prosecutor General to institute contempt of court proceedings.

An increasing number of organisations related to human rights and law have pledged solidarity with Mtetwa, condemning the country’s judiciary for the manner in which they handled her case. Freedom Under Law (FUL) Executive Director Nicole Fritz described Mtetwa as, “not only supremely skilled but brave, fearless and indefatigable.”

Zimbabwean whistle-blower journalist behind bars while authorities finalise search warrants

Mtetwa has been providing legal defence to those targeted by the Zimbabwean government, first under Robert Mugabe, now under Emmerson Mnangagwa, for well over twenty years. According to Fritz:

“Her (Mtetwa’s) clients haven’t only been human rights activists or opposition politicians, but ironically the war veterans too. She’s been jailed, even beaten in the past. And yet the ruling is still breath-taking for its abject vindictiveness.”

Mtetwa’s spirit remains strong. She told Daily Maverick:

“Of course, my spirit will be dampened where I’m treated as if I am the accused when I am merely defence council. If I have erred why do you (Magistrate) punish the accused person (Chin’ono)? Why do you not ask the accused person if they want to change their counsel? Why does the court want to decide for him?

“Surely a magistrate has no power to order that I be prosecuted where there hasn’t even been an investigation. You can see that everything is being done from back to front as opposed to presumption of innocence. I’m afraid they will use this for younger lawyers in order to intimidate them, particularly human rights lawyers”, Mtetwa said.

The Bar Council of England and Wales (“The Bar Council”) and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (“BHRC”), Thursday 20 August condemned the ruling against Mtetwa. They have called upon the ruling Magistrate, Ngoni Nduna to “immediately revoke the judgment”, and urged Zimbabwean authorities to ensure full compliance with their duties under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.

The Bar Council and BHRC also exhorted Zimbabwean authorities to ensure that lawyers are able to perform their professional functions, “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference nor threat of prosecution or other sanctions.”

Mtetwa welcomed the support,  saying, “It just shows how unprecedented this ruling was. It is being found upon by the entire civilised legal community. It simply doesn’t make sense and makes me feel that yes I’m being persecuted by the state for doing my work.”

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Ziyambi Ziyambi denied any wrongdoing on the part of the government. He dismissed Mtetwa’s actions as grandstanding:

“A good lawyer follows the due process of the court and doesn’t appeal to the political process. If you go to court, the moment you start appealing to the political process you are interfering with the court process & you then turn around and say that the executive has captured Judiciary.”

Jacob Ngarivhume and Hopewell Chin’ono bail

On Thursday 20 August Hopewell Chin’ono’s bail hearing was not open to the media as the state applied for an “in-camera” session citing prison security concerns after the jailed journalist wanted to give oral testimony about debilitating prison conditions, as part of his concerns for bail.

Mtetwa is barred as Lead Lawyer on Chin’ono’s case, but remains part of the legal team together with Adv Taona Nyamakura who is now the lead lawyer, Doug Coltart and Roselyn Hanzi. The outcome of Chin’ono’s bail application will be heard on Monday 24 Aug 2020.

Opposition leader and convener of the stifled nationwide planned protests which were scheduled for 31 July, Jacob Ngarivhume, was again denied on Friday 21 August and remanded in custody to September 4. The Transform Zimbabwe leader was denied bail on the basis that #31stJuly is now a “movement”. Ngarivhume’s lawyers have vowed to appeal the bail ruling in the High court next week. Chin’ono and Ngarivhume are being charged with “Incitement to participate in a gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of peace or bigotry or alternatively incitement to commit public violence”.

Increase in the arrest of the human rights lawyers

Since the beginning of lockdown in Zimbabwe on 30 March, at least a dozen lawyers have been arrested and charged while some were released without charge.

On 19 August lawyer Doug Coltart was in court, accused of “plotting to foment civil disobedience”, after he and four trade unionists were caught in possession of Paulo Freire’s book – “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.

Coltart told Daily Maverick: “There is clearly a very sustained attack on the legal profession as evidenced by what has happened to Beatrice, the various criminal prosecutions brought against myself and more than ten other lawyers just in the past year.

“It’s very concerning, the chilling effect it has generally on the legal profession and people’s access to justice because with all of these prosecutions against lawyers, fewer and fewer lawyers will be willing to take up these kinds of human rights cases”.

Both Mtetwa and Coltart were not able to attend any of Hopewell’s bail hearings during the week because Mtetwa has been representing Coltart.

Earlier this month, Human rights lawyer Obey Shava was detained together with his three clients, who are MDC Alliance activists. They were arrested while together, on their way to Harare Central Police Station to report as part of their bail conditions. The three female activists who include member of parliament Joana Mamombe and youth leaders Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova were out on bail after they were arrested in May and accused of staging their own abduction.

Since the beginning of lockdown in March, lawyers Tendai Biti, Thabani Mpofu, Tapiwa Makanza, Admire Rubaya and Miriam Chiba have been arrested on varying charges, all related to dissent.

The socio-economic and political crisis

The current crisis in Zimbabwe emanates from a disputed presidential ballot of 2018 which was characterised by post-election violence resulting in the deaths of at least eight civilians at the hands of uniformed forces. President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this month sent a delegation led by former cabinet minister Sydney Mufamadi and Baleka Mbete to try to broker peace through dialogue in the troubled Southern African country.

But Zimbabwe’s current crisis dates back to the early 1980s when the newly founded independent state experienced instability. A 1987 report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), says Mnangagwa was accused among others like the late Solomon Mujuru and Perrence Shiri of calling for the slaughter of more than 20,000 ethnic Ndebele people between 1983 and 1987.

The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) was established on the back of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution and is expected to finish its work in 2023. It is not clear what they have achieved.

Journalist Zenzele Dube says, “The NPRC in Zimbabwe is always going to have a difficult task because most of the perpetrators of violence are in government. Those involved in atrocities and Human Rights violations are the same people in government who control the military now. The NPRC is more like a documenting organization… ”

Zimbabwe’s economic woes are rooted in corruption, which goes back to soon after the country’s independence in 1980, and massive unbudgeted expenditure in the mid 90’s when the government paid out at least ZWD5-billion as compensation to disgruntled war veterans who had been left out and forgotten since the attainment of independence.

Corruption amongst the ruling elite seems only to have grown, as witnessed by the disappearance of US15-billion dollars in diamond money from Chiadzwa, the looting of more than US200-million of pensioners money from National Social Security Authority (NSSA) by former Minister Prisca Mupfumira and the US$60-million COVID-19 procurement scandal involving Drax International which was exposed by jailed whistleblower journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.

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The government, however, blames the country’s economic woes on sanctions allegedly invited by the main opposition party MDC.

The Bishop’s pastoral Letter and Mnangagwa’s Response

Addressing the ZANU PF 33rd ordinary session of the politburo (the highest decision-making body of the party) in the capital on 20 August, President Emmerson Mnangagwa accused catholic bishops of meddling in politics:

“It is most unfortunate when men of the cloth use the pulpit to advance a nefarious agenda for detractors of our country. Those who want to enter the political realm, are welcome to do so. They must come out and form political parties.”

Zimbabwe to meet Vatican envoy over Catholic bishops’ criticism

Zimbabwean authorities seem to have dived into deep diplomatic waters given the Roman Catholic church built and runs many hospitals and schools in the country. The church supported the liberation struggle before Zimbabwe attained its independence in 1980 and owns one of the biggest donor organisations in Zimbabwe, the Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Daily Marverick