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Human rights lawyer goes free – but Mugabe still rules


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

Good news from Africa: Beatrice Mtetwa is going free!

When last featured in these pages, the indefatigable Zimbabwean human rights lawyer was facing the prospect of a two-year jail sentence for the supposed crime of obstructing police officers in pursuit of their duties.

Or so the constabulary said.

At the time of Mtetwa’s arrest, the police were apparently searching for one Thabani Mpofu, an opponent of long-ruling Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

The police alleged that Mtetwa had the temerity to shout at them – “at the top of her voice,” no less – that they were engaged in an unconstitutional and illegal search.

She was also said to have called them “imbwa dzaMugabe,” which means “Mugabe’s dogs” in Shona, the main African language spoken in Zimbabwe.

It is not difficult to see how deeply upsetting this must have been for the police in question. After all, people in uniform have feelings, too.

But there were problems with the police version of events.

In the first place, Mtetwa was born and raised in Swaziland, not Zimbabwe, and she does not in fact speak Shona, instead communicating with Zimbabweans in English, which is almost universally spoken in the southern African land. As a result, it is unlikely she would have chosen to insult the police in Shona.

In the second place, what if she did?

Are we to believe that a few sharply worded phrases of disapproval – in whatever language they were expressed – would render the police incapable of carrying on with the task at hand?

Rumbidzai Mugwagwa, for one, didn’t buy it.

He was the magistrate who heard the case, and he ruled on Nov. 26 that there was “no evidence” Mtetwa had interfered with police.

“She is therefore discharged,” he said.

While Mtetwa was dealing with her legal troubles, the 89-year-old Mugabe was attending to other matters. In August, he triumphed in disputed elections, extending his long and troubled tenure in office. The former-schoolteacher-turned-freedom-fighter has governed Zimbabwe since the country once known as Rhodesia became independent under majority rule in 1980.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.


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