Zimbabwe court denies bail to human rights lawyer

AP News
Posted: Mar 20, 2013 1:31 PM
Zimbabwe court denies bail to human rights lawyer

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A Zimbabwe court refused Wednesday to free on bail the nation's top rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, on charges of obstructing justice after her arrest by police Sunday.

The court ordered her to be held in prison until her next court appearance on April 3, but lawyers said they will immediately appeal the ruling.

The ruling by Harare magistrate Marehwanazvo Gofa was "shocking, disappointing and injudicious," said attorney Alec Muchadehama, member of Mtetwa's defense team.

"This is a serious assault on the legal profession in Zimbabwe. The magistrate was wrong and misdirected herself. We are not happy at all about the ruling," Muchadehama said.

A defiant Mtetwa waved at activists and legal colleagues as she was led from the courthouse.

The judgment marked a "sad day" for the rule of law in Zimbabwe, said Irene Petras, head of the independent Lawyers for Human Rights. "Despite what has happened, we need to carry on the fight for justice."

"It is a travesty of justice not founded on fact and law," said Abel Chikomo, head of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum.

The next step is to seek an urgent hearing at the High Court to overrule Gofa's decision, said the lawyers.

Mtetwa appeared at the court in the morning in green prison uniform after spending a third night in jail despite a judge's order to authorities to release her on Monday.

Her arrest, the day after a referendum vote on a new constitution that calls for stronger human rights, prompted an outcry from African and international law organizations. On Sunday, she was representing four officials of the Zimbabwe prime minister's party being searched by police on allegations of illegally collecting information on high level corruption.

The four officials, brought to court in leg irons, were also denied bail Wednesday.

Prosecutors said Mtetwa is a citizen of Swaziland and it is feared she might abscond before her next court appearance and she "might hinder further police investigations by causing commotion and shouting."

Police say that Mtetwa shouted at them during house searches Sunday. Mtetwa says that she merely told police that they were violating her clients' rights by carrying out illegal searches and refusing to produce valid search warrants.

Obstructing justice carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

Mtetwa's prolonged period in jail is seen as a crackdown on critics of President Robert Mugabe. She has represented Tsvangirai and several of his top aides in past cases brought against them. She has also successfully defended journalists and human rights workers against prosecution by the Mugabe government. Mtetwa is the recipient of an array of awards from international jurists' groups including the American Bar Association.

The American Bar Association on Wednesday condemned Mtetwa's treatment in detention and called on Zimbabwean authorities to "cease further harassment of political opponents and their representatives exercising their rights under international law."

"The eyes of the international legal community are on the Zimbabwe government's flagrant and deplorable disrespect for the rule of law, the authority of the judiciary of Zimbabwe, and the government's unwarranted punishment of lawyers trying to protect the rights of Zimbabwe citizens," said Laurel Bellows, president of the American Bar Association.

Mtetwa is a "victim of arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention and must be released immediately," said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International's southern Africa director. "It's staggering that while Zimbabwe is in the process of adopting a new constitution which provides a stronger bill of human rights, lawyers in the course of their lawful duty are being so blatantly harassed and intimidated."