JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — With elections looming in Zimbabwe, the country’s top human rights defender is mired in an unprecedented position: having to defend herself.
Lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa has spent decades fighting against abuses of the state on behalf of journalists, opposition politicians, activists and ordinary Zimbabweans. But her arrest in March on charges of obstructing justice while representing clients during a police raid has been interpreted as a particularly worrying sign of trouble ahead.
For many Zimbabweans, memories are still fresh of the political violence surrounding the last presidential elections, in 2008. A runoff vote devolved into a bloody show of force by President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party that left hundreds dead and the country in tatters.
Now, as Zimbabwe prepares to return to the polls, the intimidation and arrests have started again.
A date for the election hasn’t yet been announced — it must take place within four months of parliament being dissolved on June 29 — but already there has been a crackdown on civil society leaders and journalists.
An editor and a reporter with the Zimbabwe Independent weekly have been charged with publishing "false statements prejudicial to the state,” after a front-page story suggested that security officials close to Mugabe were in secret talks with his rivals from Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.
The Law Society of Zimbabwe described Mtetwa’s arrest while exercising her right to represent clients, four aides to Tsvangirai, as an attempt to “intimidate” and “harass” lawyers. This week her trial was postponed to June 8 at the prosecution’s request.
Mtetwa, ever the optimist, said the eight days she spent incarcerated before being released on bail taught her what court challenges she can make regarding the conditions in Zimbabwe’s notoriously terrible prisons.
“It was bad, but in a lot of ways it was not too bad because it has given me a direct and personal experience of jail,” Mtetwa told journalists in Johannesburg during a recent screening of a documentary about her work.
A number of international rights groups have warned that conditions for peaceful and fair elections are not in place. It’s still unclear how the vote will be funded — likely South Africa will help to pay — but already Mugabe has announced a ban on Western election monitors.
“Zimbabwe’s authorities cannot expect to create a rights-respecting environment ahead of elections in the context of repression, harassment, and intimidation of civil society activists,” Human Rights Watch’s Tiseke Kasambala said in a statement.
Mugabe, 89, has been in power since Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980. Since the political violence of 2008, his Zanu-PF party has ruled under a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change.
But key reforms agreed to under the deal haven’t been implemented, in particular changes to the security sector and the voters’ roll, seen as necessary to create conditions for free elections.
A new constitution, signed by Mugabe this month, imposes a two-term limit (five years per term) for Zimbabwe’s president — but doesn’t apply retroactively, so Mugabe could in theory rule until he is 99.
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Mtetwa said the problems in Zimbabwe are not just about Mugabe, but also about a system that’s been allowed to take hold.
“I don’t believe that one man can hold a country to ransom. I also don’t believe that if Mugabe loses the next election things will just fall into place and change just like that,” she said
“Is there an end in sight? Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” Mtetwa added. “I do believe that historically things like these do come to an end.”