HARARE – Hours after she was found not guilty, The Legal Monitor (LM) sat down with prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa (BM), (pictured below), who is also the board chairperson of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) to hear her views on the case.
LM: What’s the feeling of being “free” again?
BM: I feel relieved that I no longer have to go to court to defend myself as opposed to defending my clients. The biggest losers of all this have been my clients who have had to go to court without a lawyer of their choice because I was busy defending myself.
I am relieved that this madness has come to an end. But at the same time extremely annoyed because for a period of eight months I was taken out of circulation for no reason other than that I was doing my duty (when I was arrested), all because it was a client whom the system does not like.
It ought not to have come to this. I should not have been arrested for doing my job.
LM: Why are you angry?
BM: Because of my arrest, many other people have found it difficult to get lawyers when they are facing certain charges.
So clearly, the impact on lawyers has been to make them unavailable for certain cases because they fear that what was done to Beatrice Mtetwa will be done to them.
LM: Lawyers have been under siege for doing their professional work for quite some time now. What do you think should be done to stop this persecution?
BM: We all hoped that with the coming of a new Constitution in May there would come an era where people would understand that lawyers have a duty to represent all people, including those whose causes are not popular with those who wield political power.
Unfortunately, we have seen that lawyers continue being harassed for doing their work.
We have seen an increase in attacks on lawyers in the course of their duties, in judgments in circumstances where they cannot even speak for themselves because they only become aware that they are a target when they read the judgment.
That means for me fewer and fewer lawyers will go to court because they fear being arrested.
We see that the prosecuting authorities do not get the same kind of attacks.
You note that even in cases where the State loses dismally, you do not get the language we have seen reserved for lawyers in private practice, particularly those who would be doing cases that are deemed political.
I find it unfortunate that the courts do not look beyond the face of the person appearing before them.
We have a right as lawyers to operate freely without fear of being castigated by the courts for representing clients.
And it is true that there has been a chilling effect where lawyers are afraid to represent certain personalities because of being identified with the client’s cause.
LM: You have mentioned the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
Why do you think it proceeded with your case which many from the onset said it was a wild goose chase?
BM: The NPA has been trying to get me for a long time.
I was not really surprised when they persisted with the prosecution of the case even in the face of the many contradictions that were apparent when the first State witness testified.
That goal has not been achieved, but they kept me out of circulation for a good seven to eight months.
That is where I have a problem with the judiciary.
I feel very strongly that the language that is being used to castigate lawyers is not being used to castigate prosecuting authorities who clearly abuse their prosecuting powers to target certain lawyers and certain individuals.
For as long as courts are not prepared to deal with the abuse of the prosecutorial powers, the NPA can be said to be a new institution, but we know that the people running it remain the same and we know that their thinking has not changed at all.
So we know that it is Mtetwa today, it will be another lawyer tomorrow and Mtetwa again the following day.
This will continue for as long as the NPA is allowed to do what it does with impunity.
LM: You are the board chairperson of ZLHR. What have you done to pressure authorities to stop the persecution of lawyers?
BM: I think as members of ZLHR and to some extent the Law Society; we have tried to lobby the authorities that lawyers do have a constitutional space in the justice delivery system and should be allowed to exercise their right within the law without being harassed.
Unfortunately, not all lawyers speak with one voice.
Some lawyers, unfortunately, celebrate when others get castigated. Unfortunately, some lawyers are part of the problem.
If it is Mtetwa today, the lawyer on the other side does not know that they could be exactly in the same position tomorrow and they will not get protection.
LM: After your arrest and during your trial, there were some attacks on you that some felt bordered on xenophobia.
BM: It was not just xenophobia. There was misogyny, there was anything that you can think of.
There were articles of me not being a proper daughter-in-law. I do not know what that has anything to do with the practice of law.
Should I go to court and ombera (clapping hands) to be a nice muroora (daughter-in-law) when I am doing my professional work as a lawyer? No.
I was attacked because I am a female who did not do the job the way females are expected to.
I was attacked because I am Swazi-born despite the fact that I have lived in Zimbabwe for more than 30 years.
I was attacked as if I came in yesterday. The xenophobic attacks took a personal level.
My personal life was dissected in all respects. Police were sent to look at files that had nothing to do with the case; going to the Law Society to see if my file had complaints from clients, going to the High Court to look at my divorce files, going to my ex-husband to dish out dirt on me, going to Zimra to see if I had smuggled anything into the country.
What did that have to do with the charge?
No doubt this was targeted at putting my name in as much disrepute as they could.
It was shocking that some of the xenophobic attacks came from people who have lived in other countries without being harassed.
We have Zimbabweans facing xenophobia in other countries, and one would expect Zimbabwe not to fall into the same trap.
You had big people who should have been concentrating on other issues than on this little woman writing silly articles on me.
One newspaper had five pages of nothing besides vitriol against me.
If as a country this is how we are going to behave, then it is extremely unfortunate; it means fewer and few women are going to participate in what would make this country a better place for everybody.
LM: You have been discharged as the 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence gather momentum.
What do you have to say?
BM: At times one is tempted to say physical violence is better than the unseen violence.
If people do not see the injury on your face or any part of your body, they do not think you have been violated.
It is meant to destroy your self-esteem. It is meant to say to other women: ‘do not have these rights. If you venture into law the way Mtetwa does, we will call you the names that we call Mtetwa’.
That is some form of psychological violence. In Zimbabwe reputation counts, particularly for females. Very few women will put themselves out there to be castigated the way I was.
They do not want to be portrayed in the manner I was portrayed.
Clearly, there can be no question on whether there was State-sanctioned psychological violence against me which will impact on young women, particularly young female lawyers.
LM: You say your reputation has been soiled and you were exposed to psychological torture; are you likely to pursue this issue by way of a civil suit?
BM: I am yet to sit with my legal team to see how we can handle it going forward.
LM: Any word to your lawyer Harrison Nkomo who has been with you since March 17?
BM: Not just him; everyone at our law firm, colleagues in the civil society and in the profession and many other Zimbabweans, including newspaper vendors who celebrated when I was released on bail after my arrest.
I would want to say everything I went through paled into insignificance because you showed me that it is a very tiny minority who want to tarnish the image of this country.
The majority of Zimbabweans are very wonderful people who can differentiate right from wrong.
This process helped me see how wonderful Zimbabweans are.
LM: And to the Prosecutor-General Johannes Tomana and his NPA team?
BM: We have a judgment by the High Court which tries to explain what the NPA ought to be. You win some, you lose some.
There is nothing wrong in the NPA throwing in the towel as early as possible.
This case was headed for where it is now after the first State witness.
The most professional thing for the NPA to have done was to withdraw the charges instead of persisting with what is a dead case.
Unfortunately, this happens time and again. So to Mr Tomana; as he takes this position: please give your juniors the professional right to determine how their case goes in court.
It is easy for a prosecutor in court to say: ‘this case is going nowhere’.
Do not force prosecutors to continue with cases that are dead.
It is more professional to lose with dignity than to lose with ridicule.