BY MIRIAM MANGWAYA/PHYLLIS MBANJE
A DAMNING report has revealed a growing and worrisome trend in the systematic arrest of lawyers in the country and restrictions that have been placed on them since the beginning of 2020, impacting their freedom to practise their profession.
The report was launched virtually by the Lawyers for Lawyers (L4L) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) on Tuesday evening.
Titled: Attacks on Human Rights Lawyers in Zimbabwe, the report notes that lawyers have been barred from representing their clients, subjected to arbitrary arrests and sometimes attacked for practising their profession.
At least 15 lawyers have been arrested arrested by the police and restricted from carrying out their duties since the beginning of 2020, according to the report.
Describing the situation, especially under COVID-19 restrictions, human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama said: “We had insurmountable difficulties moving to police stations and the courts. We would be frisked at the checkpoints.
“We would not be allowed to pass despite identifying ourselves as lawyers. While we were prevented from reaching our clients, they were being over detained and being held incommunicado.”
Another human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who has been arrested several times, told the meeting that as lawyers, they encounter hostility in the courts of law.
“It is a tight rope that we walk and thus compromises the judicial process,” Mtetwa said.
“We are deemed to be anti-government. There are individuals who will tell you straight in the face that we cannot use you because you are anti-government.”
This year, Mtetwa was barred from representing Hopewell Chin’ono at the Harare magistrates court and a magistrate ordered that she should be charged with contempt of court.
In one of several incidents of arbitrary arrests of the legal practitioners, lawyer Douglas Coltart was violently arrested during a protest organised by the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) last year.
“The beginning of 2020 saw an increase in the number of arrests of Zimbabwean lawyers, and in the restrictions placed on lawyers in their freedoms to carry out their profession,” the report read.
“The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and government enforced restrictions, resulted in an increase in these numbers. In 2020, Zimbabwean authorities questioned and arrested a number of lawyers while they were carrying out their professional duties.
“A large number of Zimbabwean lawyers were arrested in June 2020. On 10 July 2020, lawyers were charged with defeating or obstructing the course of justice. These lawyers include Dumisani Dube, Thabani Mpofu, Tapiwa Makanza and Joshua Chirambwe, who are believed to have been arrested for conducting their professional duties.”
Lawyers said the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the challenges they faced in carrying out their duties, as they were not classified as essential service providers during the government imposed lockdowns.
“L4L and ZLHR said government should ensure that lawyers are able to carry out their legitimate professional rights and duties without fear of reprisals and restrictions, including judicial harassment.
“In its task of promoting and ensuring the proper role of lawyers, the government of Zimbabwe should respect, and take account of, the basic principles within the framework of its national legislation and practice,” said the report.
President of the International Bar Association Sternford Moyo said the report was of great importance and should go beyond and be elevated to an international campaign in support of lawyers.