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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.

Beatrice Mtetwa outside the High Court in Harare in April 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

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