The arrest of lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa - a new low for lawyers in Zimbabwe

We should remember the price lawyers sometimes pay for the courageous defence of their clients.

As President Robert Mugabe signed Zimbabwe’s new constitution into law last week, the case of lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa should have reminded us of the dangers of political interference in the justice system, as well as the price lawyers sometimes pay for the courageous defence of their clients.

Beatrice, a prominent human rights lawyer and past president of the Zimbabwean Law Society, will stand trial today for “obstructing or defeating the course of justice”. She was arrested in Harare on 17 March after she asked to see the search warrant of police officers who were conducting what she called an “unlawful, unconstitutional, illegal and undemocratic” search of the home of her client, Thabani Mpofu, an aide to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

When Beatrice arrived at her client’s home, police were already conducting the search. She was handcuffed and taken to Harare Central police station. Despite a High Court order for her release, she was held in custody for eight nights and was allegedly ill-treated and denied access to her family. The High Court finally released her on bail of £330 after magistrates had initially refused to let her go.

This is just one of a series of incidents Amnesty International has observed in recent months amounting to what the organisation calls a crackdown on human rights defenders. The signing of the new constitution paves the way for presidential elections later this year and there are concerns that this crackdown could be the beginning of a return to the violence and bloodshed that left 200 people dead, 10,000 injured and nearly 30,000 displaced around the last elections in 2008.

When Beatrice was arrested, Amnesty called for her immediate release, as did the Law Society of England and Wales. The Law Society pointed out that the arrest breached United Nations basic principles on the role of lawyers. These require governments to ensure that they can perform their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference. The UN principles call on national authorities to safeguard lawyers whose security is threatened through performing their role, and to ensure that they are not identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result.

Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said of Beatrice’s case: “This blatant lack of respect for the role of lawyers in the structure of democratic society demonstrates how the rule of law is yet to be fully established in Zimbabwe. [The] arrest marks a new low in relations between the Zimbabwe State and the legal profession.”

The ordeal of Beatrice Mtetwa brings home to us in the UK how lucky we are. Our courtroom battles for justice and human rights for our clients don’t normally bring down reprisals on our heads. That said, the notorious exceptions of lawyers Rosemary Nelson and Patrick Finucane, both assassinated in Northern Ireland as a direct result of their performance of their legal functions amid allegations - confirmed in Finucane’s case - of collusion by the state authorities, warn us how fragile and contingent is the rule of law and the structure of democratic society.

There is evidence that the campaign of the anti-human rights lobby in the UK, which involves tabloid “naming and shaming” of immigration judges who allow deportation appeals by long-resident foreigners on human rights grounds, has dramatically reduced the number of successful appeals.

This lobby also ran a successful campaign to prevent prominent human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson QC becoming a judge at the European Court of Human Rights because he had represented Abu Qatada. And legal aid cuts, new obstacles to judicial review and proposals to award bulk criminal legal aid cases to cut-price contractors, all threaten the rule of law.

We in the UK need to appreciate, protect and defend our independent human rights lawyers and judges and the fabric of justice, even as we express our solidarity and support for beleaguered colleagues such as Beatrice Mtweta.

Frances Webber is a human rights lawyer, author of Borderline justice: the fight for refugee and migrant rights (Pluto, 2012), an honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society and vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations

Beatrice Mtetwa outside the High Court in Harare in April 2008. Photograph: Getty Images
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.