Index Award winner Beatrice Mtetwa detained by Zimbabwe police

This is a guest post by Nani Jansen, Senior Legal Counsel, Media Legal Defence Initiative

Beatrice Mtetwa is one of Zimbabwe’s most high profile lawyers. Renowned for her lack of fear she has long been the go-to lawyer for human rights activists, politicians and journalists threatened by the hard hand of Robert Mugabe’s regime.

She has won international awards aplenty — the Index on Censorship Law Award 2006, CPJ’s Press Freedom Award in 2005; Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize of the European Bar Human Rights Institute in 2009, and the International Human Rights Award of the American Bar Association in 2010 — but at home, her defence of Mugabe’s opponents has won her few friends among the regime. In 2003, she was arrested on spurious allegations of drunk driving and beaten by police; and in 2007, Ms Mtetwa and three of her colleagues were beaten by police at a protest against police harassment of lawyers in Harare.

Now she has been arrested again — this time for allegedly “obstructing the course of justice”.

Last Sunday, she was arrested, together with three senior MDC officials, at the house of one of Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s advisers — Thabani Mpofu. She had been called to Mpofu’s house in the morning, when he was arrested and his house was being searched. Upon arrival, Ms Mtetwa asked the police officers conducting the search to produce a search warrant, which they refused. When she protested against continuation of the search, the officers tried to take away her cell phone and purse. Upon resisting this attempt, she was placed under arrest for “obstructing the course of justice.”

After the arrest, Mtetwa was taken to Rhodesville police station in Harare. An urgent petition for her release was filed by the human rights group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which was granted just before midnight. However, police have refused to comply with the court order and Ms Mtetwa is still being held in detention. She is reportedly being moved from one police station to the other prevent her lawyers from officially serving the court order and has been denied access to counsel.

The Media Legal Defence Initiative, on whose international advisory board Ms Mtetwa serves, has now filed a formal petition with the African Union and United Nations’ special mandates for the protection of human rights defenders, the independence of lawyers and freedom of expression for their urgent intervention. While Zimbabwean police refuse to comply with court orders, international pressure — including from the African Union — is hoped to have a result.