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The trials, tribulations, and tenacity of Beatrice Mtetwa

Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa speaks with journalists in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a good thing for Beatrice Mtetwa that she doesn’t speak Shona.

If she spoke Shona – the main indigenous language in the southern African republic of Zimbabwe – Mtetwa might be in worse trouble than she is.

As matter’s stand, the woman is in trouble enoughno rare experience for her.

The leading human rights lawyer in her adopted country, Mtetwa, 54, faces trial on a charge of obstructing justice, the result of an incident that supposedly took place this past March.

Here is what happened, according to the police version.

It seems a squad of Zimbabwe’s finest were conducting a search at the home of one Thabani Mpofu, a political opponent of long-time Zimbabwean ruler Robert Mugabe. This was on March 17.

Alerted to the search, Mtetwa hurried to the scene, at which point – say the police – she became rude and abusive, even going as far as to refer to them in a loud voice as “imbwa dzaMugabe,” which is Shona for “Mugabe’s dogs.”

It was around this point that the police arrested Mtetwa and carted her off to jail, where she remained for eight long days until, finally, she was released on March 25, after being charged with an offence that could result in two years’ imprisonment if she’s convicted.

“The police were out to get me,” she said following her release. “They wanted me to feel their might and power because I call myself a human rights lawyer.”

As you might expect, the Zimbabwean constabulary take a different view.

“Her actions hindered the course of our duties,” huffed chief police superintendent Luckson Mukazhi while testifying at Mtetwa’s trial, which got underway last month. “We had to abandon the whole process and return later to complete the searches.”

But here’s the thing – Mtetwa doesn’t speak Shona. As a result, she could not have said what the police say that she said.

Born and raised in Swaziland, Mtetwa moved to Zimbabwe in 1983, when she was 24 years old. Since then, she has used English to communicate, both privately and as a lawyer, in a career that has brought her great trouble, much physical suffering, and no little fame.

Owing to her courageous defence of countless Zimbabwean political dissidents, she has been detained several times by police and twice been severely beaten. More than a few of her clients – white and black alike – credit her for saving their lives.

Now she is the star of a new documentary film produced by American director Lorie Conway. It’s called Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law and is available on DVD. 

But back to the trial, which is being conducted before Zimbabwean Magistrate Rumbidzai Mugwagwa.

Mtetwa has pleaded not guilty to the charge against her. Although she has yet to testify in her defence, she insists she did not interfere with police during their search of her client’s residence. She merely asked to be shown a search warrant, which the police failed to produce. She did not shout at them, she says.

The trial began on June 10, proceeding with extreme sluggishness since then.

Meanwhile, the 89-year-old Mugabe has scheduled presidential elections for July 31 in hopes of extending his 33-year hold on power in a country once celebrated as the economic and political hope of the region. But Zimbabwe has declined mightily on all fronts since Mugabe assumed office.

The country’s last presidential vote took place in 2008, following a violent campaign that left some 200 dead and thousands more either injured or displaced. Although he subsequently entered a power-sharing agreement with the main opposition group, Mugabe has continued to hound and intimidate his adversaries.

Mtetwa says her present legal troubles are part of that same strategy. By dragging human rights lawyers into court to face trials of their own, the octogenarian schemer known as Robert Gabriel Mugabe effectively puts them out of commission.

“Basically, lawyers are being tied up with trials in order to ensure that they don’t represent their clients and they don’t concentrate on their work,” Mtetwa said in a recent radio interview. “I just hope Zimbabwe will have free, fair, and peaceful elections and that human rights defenders will be able to do their bit without being harassed.”

In Zimbabwe – as Beatrice Mtetwa knows better than anyone – those are two very tall orders.

Oakland Ross is a feature writer at the Toronto Star. He previously spent several
years as a newspaper correspondent based in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.


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