Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa is one of Africa's towering heroes for her principled and courageous battles to uphold the rule of law.
Mtetwa was awarded the 2011 Inamori Ethics Prize at Case Western Reserve University for her zealous defense of human rights and press freedom.
"I am optimistic that democracy and the rule of law will be restored in Zimbabwe," said Mtetwa in Cleveland, Ohio, for the prize-giving ceremony. "I abhor injustice and I fight it wherever I see it. I am driven to defend people who are struggling for their basic human rights. ... I am optimistic that the rule of law will be restored in Zimbabwe in my lifetime."
Mtetwa said she shared the honor of the Inamori Ethics Prize with "all the people out there who challenge the system knowing there are consequences and yet still do it."
"I come in after they have already exercised their rights," Mtetwa said to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "They are the brave ones for doing it. Without them I would have nobody to defend. I feel it is my duty to join them in the battle for basic democratic rights."
Mtetwa has earlier won awards from the Committee to Protect Journalists which presented her with the Burton Benjamin award for lifetime achievement in 2008 for her defense of journalists who had been arrested by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's regime. In 2009 Mtetwa won the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize in France for her defense of human rights in Zimbabwe.
But Mtetwa's most notable awards are not the trophies and medallions that are given to her. I'm sure her most treasured awards are the freedom of the many journalists, politicians, human rights workers and ordinary Zimbabweans whom she has ably defended in court.
I am one of Mtetwa's devoted fans because she got me out of a Zimbabwean jail in May 2002 and she brilliantly won my acquittal when I was charged with "publishing a falsehood." If I had been found guilty I faced a sentence of two years in prison.
Mtetwa also successfully represented me in court when the Mugabe regime tried to deport me. After hearing Mtetwa's argument, the High Court ruled that I had the right to stay and work in Zimbabwe.
And in May, 2003, when Zimbabwe government agents illegally abducted me, held me captive and forced me on a plane out of the country, Mtetwa got a court order declaring those actions unlawful.
I am a beneficiary of Beatrice Mtetwa's dogged determination to make Zimbabwe's justice system uphold the rule of law. And I am in awe of her principled dedication to the law.
Mtetwa has also represented a number of foreign journalists including New York Times reporter Barry Bearak, after he was arrested and charged under an obsolete law requiring press accreditation.
She has defended a number of Zimbabwean journalists and human rights workers.
Consider the story of Jestina Mukoko, a Zimbabwean human rights worker. Mukoko was abducted from her home before dawn in December 2008. Armed men took Mukoko away from her home, still in her nightgown and barefeet. Police said they had not arrested Mukoko and many feared that she would never be seen alive.
Mtetwa refused to give up in her search for Mukoko. She used a court order to force the state media to publicize Mukoko's case. The public responded by sending in reports that Mukoko had been seen at an army base. Mtetwa's persistence brought such attention to the case that Zimbabwean authorities were forced to release Jestina Mukoko. She had been so badly tortured that she needed immediate medical care.
Mukoko said she believes that her life was saved by Beatrice Mtetwa's efforts.
Mtetwa's career is dangerous. She has received death threats and has been beaten twice by Zimbabwean police.
The mother of two said she learned to challenge authority as the eldest daughter in a large polygamous family in rural Swaziland. Mtetwa said she began challenging her father's authoritarian rules at an early age. Her defiance sometimes caused her to be beaten.
She said that she was determined to get a university education so that she could have an independent life and she encouraged her sisters to get university educations, too.
In the past few years, Mtetwa said despite being disliked, she's earned a measure of respect from many in the Zimbabwean police force.
I can attest to that. When I was held by Zimbabwean police, my interogating officers often displayed an arrogant attitude and threatened me. But when Mtetwa came into the station, the officers snapped to attention and treated both of us with respect.
Mtetwa's shining reputation as a human rights lawyer has not come without cost. Many big corporate clients in Zimbabwe have stopped being represented by Mtetwa because they are fearful that the Mugabe regime will rule against them.
Mtetwa has inspired a generation of Zimbabwean lawyers, both by her courtroom work and by leading the Zimbabwe Law Society. However, many other lawyers and activists have fled Zimbabwe.
"Those fighting are fewer and fewer and some of the few left are fearful because they don't know what will happen to them," said Mtetwa.
Mtetwa said that she is determined to be optimistic.
She knows what Zimbabwe needs: an impartial judiciary, a professional and apolitical police force and army, a proper human rights commission and electoral body, and an independent attorney general.
"If we can get one or two of those things accomplished the rest will start to fall into line," she said.
When she received the Inamori ethics award, Mtetwa spoke to the hundreds of students who gathered at Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra.
"It is not what you make that counts," she said. "It is what difference you make that counts. It the the difference you can make with your life to make other people's lives better that is important."