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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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.