Zimbabwe's rights advocate Beatrice fearless in seeking justice

Tuesday March 28 2023
Zimbabwe lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa

Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa poses for a portrait in Harare on February 15, 2023. She refuses to be intimidated and has represented defendants in several high-profile cases against the country's authoritarian government. PHOTO | JEKESAI NJIKIZANA | AFP


Lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa cuts a short figure, but she appears fearless in her work as Zimbabwe's best-known human rights lawyer and a thorn in the side of an authoritarian government.

With Zimbabwe’s next presidential election expected in August, she is the go-to lawyer for many seeking justices and has represented defendants in several high-profile cases against the government in recent decades. 

The 64-year-old refuses to be intimidated even after being arrested, beaten up and jailed for eight days a few years ago after helping a client who had been raided by police.

"I've never done anything illegal," she said calmly, as if her anti-graft stance and the stern face she puts on every wrongdoing could not anger some people.

"What I do is what I took an oath to do. My work is not driven by politics. I defend all sorts of political profiles."

Read: UN experts warn over Zimbabwe's proposed law


Case against Zimbabwe’s judiciary

With short afro hair and raised cheekbones on a round face, Mtetwa said the work she does has to be done although fears may have silenced many of her colleagues.

"I am building a body of cases that will enable us to have a full enquiry into the operations of the Zimbabwean Judiciary, to ensure it doesn't happen again," she said.

"I might not see this happen during my lifetime," she admitted, as the country prepares for a presidential and legislative election that the ruling Zanu-PF party, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, is determined to win.


ZANU PF supporters march on August 30 2017 in Harare. PHOTO | JEKESAI NJIKIZANA | AFP

She denied playing politics and denounced a system considered corrupt to the core, where justice is administered along partisan lines.

"Regularly, people don't get bail anymore unless they are aligned with Zanu-PF. During trials, you would be hard pressed to find a single judicial officer to say that the case of the state is weak,” she said.

"They are either afraid or partisan," she added.

A weak judiciary

It is now systematic for all opposition political defendants to appear before the same magistrates and stand no chance of being released on bail on first application. 

For her, it's painful that the judiciary which should be fighting tooth-and-nail to retain its independence is failing to do so. 

"Half the time, I don't think politicians even make a phone call to influence a judgement. The judiciary has been doing everything to subvert due process," she said.

Mtetwa cited the case of Zimbabwe’s opposition MP Job Sikhala, a popular politician among the capital's poor, who has been in prison for almost 300 days for allegedly inciting violence during a speech.

He is unlikely to be released before the election.

She expressed the hope that the campaigning would not turn into "a bloodbath".

Read: EU extends arms embargo on Zimbabwe

Already opposition rallies have been disrupted and activists arrested in their homes.

“Political repression is now harsher than under Robert Mugabe, the country's late strongman who led for 37 years,” she said.

After the 2017 coup, there was pretence that they would take a different course, portraying the new president Emmerson Mnangagwa as better at understanding problems. 

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP

However, she said she believes, the "warmth of the seat of power” got to him Mnangagwa.

Justice for her clients

So why is a lawyer, the oldest of about 50 children of a polygamous father from Eswatini and who has lived in Zimbabwe for four decades, fighting for justice?

"You can't say the system is captured from the outside, without getting your hands dirty,” Mtetwa replied.

She said she goes to court in the hope that she gets justice for her clients.

“Some clients struggle to hire defence lawyers because of the sensitivity or high-profile nature of their cases,” said Mtetwa who owns a firm that handles all types of cases in Harare.

She said clients opt for her because they believe she is not easily intimidated.