Zimbabwe’s Tortured Rule of Law


On Sunday, March 17, a day after the Constitutional Referendum, Zimbabwe arrested Beatrice Mtetwa, leading human rights lawyer and Board member of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Mtetwa had been arrested for the ‘crime’ of asking the whereabouts of a client. The State refers to that as “obstructing or defeating the course of justice.” Actually, Beatrice Mtetwa is the course of justice

On Monday, Beatrice Mtetwa was ‘granted’ bail, and now she is ‘free’ to walk the streets, work, and do whatever, right? Not really. She joins her client, Jestina Mukoko, and the tens of thousands of others in Zimbabwe, the walking un-free who have been ‘released’ from prisons, jails, ‘custody’. There aren’t enough scare quotation marks anymore to adequately describe Zimbabwe’s ‘justice system’.

The presiding judge, High Court Judge Justice Joseph Musakwa, explained, “Mtetwa should not have been denied bail by the lower court and the police should have shed light on the nature and scope of the investigations that remained outstanding and that the court should not have denied liberty to a legal practitioner of repute like Mtetwa.”

Mtetwa should not have been imprisoned. While it’s a relief, of sorts, that Mtetwa is on this side of the bars, barely, her imprisonment was and is an outrage. As one Zimbabwean blogger put it, “It’s a relief for her sake that she’s been granted bail. But it’s an insult to justice in Zimbabwe that she was detained in the first place, never mind held in custody for eight nights.”

One would say, “Amen,” except the drama does not end there.

During the week that Beatrice Mtetwa was in prison, Gabriel Shumba was informed that, finally, the African Human Rights Commission had found the government of Zimbabwe guilty of having tortured him, in 2003, and that Zimbabwe owes Shumba more than an apology.

In 2003, Shumba, a lawyer, was “attending to a client”, an opposition Member of Parliament when he was arrested. While in custody, he was subjected to extreme torture and threatened with death. Upon his release, Shumba fled to South Africa, where he became Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.

Shumba brought his case to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in December 2005. The Commission ‘deferred’ any decision until May 2012. For most of those more than six years, the Commission basically did nothing. Better put, it actively deferred looking into the matter. Finally, it decided and then waited, again, until January 2013, when the Executive Committee approved. And then, finally, last week, the Commission informed Gabriel Shumba, during the week that Beatrice Mtetwa sat in prison.

The State violence is not new, but it is news. Where’s the international media on the ongoing situation of police violence and the torture that passes for rule of law in Zimbabwe? They’re in a drive-by mode. An occasional report, a Constitution here, an election there, suffice. There is hardly ever an attempt to linger, to stay, to get at the contexts, which are both brutally simply and, often worse, brutally complex.

As Gabriel Shumba wrote, in 2010: “Zimbabwe has witnessed some of the worst crimes against humanity to be committed on the African continent in recent years… To call for elections when the structures of violence and rigging are still in place is to subject the nation to yet another unnecessary torment… The infrastructure of violence… need to be dismantled.”

What is the rule of law in a regime of torment? Ask Jestina Mukoko, Beatrice Mtetwa, Gabriel Shumba and so many others.

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4 thoughts on “Zimbabwe’s Tortured Rule of Law

  1. Dan, you villify the media for not reporting on the violence etc in Zimbabwe, from the comfort of your armchair in the security of your home or office. Tell you what, why don’t you put your liberty and well-being at risk and go to Zimbabwe and investigate and report on what’s happening there? Be fair Dan, it’s not easy or safe for any international news correspondent in Mugabe’s kingdom.

  2. @egteSafrican: Thanks as ever for your spirited response. I agree that news correspondents, international or no, need and merit protection and safety … pretty much everywhere. In fact, everyone should be safe. As to vilifying the media, the question rather is how decisions are made as to what qualifies as `news’, in this instance in particular in Zimbabwe. As to the ironic safety of armchair and office, we are in agreement.

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