Lawyers for Human Rights
It’s 31 May 2008. Eric Matinenga, a lawyer and recently elected MP for the opposition party MDC, travels to Buhera, a small town just 200 kilometres south of Harare, to investigate the alleged arrest of clients. At the Buhera police station he is denied access to his clients. When he insists, he himself is arrested on charges of ‘public violence’. “When we heard that Matinenga had been detained, we set off to Buhera with a group of our lawyers”, ZHLR communications manager Tinashe Mundawarara recalls. “They left in four cars, as soldiers and militia had put up a road block every ten kilometres and they didn’t allow everyone to pass through. Besides, we knew the road was very bad and in fact two cars did break down. In the meantime Matinenga was transferred to Mutare, the capital of the province, more than a hundred kilometres further on. Upon arrival there the ZLHR lawyers insisted that he be brought to court. This finally happened on 5 June, six days after the initial incaceration and far beyond the legally provided period of 48 hours. The court ruled that there were no grounds for placing Matinenga on remand.”
After one day of freedom, Matinenga was arrested again in the early morning of 7 June at his home in Harare. ZLHR lawyers urgently petitioned the High Court to issue a provisional injunction. Although the High Court issued a provisional order for Matinenga’s immediate release, this was ignored. Tinashe Mundawarara: “The police took him back to Buhera. Our lawyers followed the police vehicle. The argument that failure to release Matinenga was in contempt of the court made little impression on the police. In fact, two days later they moved him again, this time to the police station in Rusape, again a hundred kilometres further on. There the police finally found a magistrate who was willing to remand Matinenga in custody, on the same charges that had been submitted to the first court. The ZLHR lawyers then lodged a constitutional challenge on the continued detention and the law used by the police to sustain further detention. Another two weeks later Matinenga was finally released.”
Advocate Matinenga’s case is not an isolated one. “Over the past years we have seen many instances of this kind of unlawful detention,” says Tinashe Mundawarara. “People have also been abducted, tortured and killed. This used to happen mostly to the rank and file of opposition party MDC. For example, in October 72-year old MDC district chairperson Fidelis Chiramba was arrested and tortured. One of the methods involved putting him in a deep freezer and then pouring hot water over his genitals. One month later the well-known international human rights activist Jestina Mukoko was taken away at night and forced into a car, still in her pyjamas, and then tortured with rubber truncheons. The government denied detaining her for three weeks, but subsequently had her appear in court, where she was charged with recruiting youths for an armed uprising against the regime. ZLHR tries to assist political prisoners by all legal means possible, preferably as soon as possible after their arrest. This reduces the risk of abuse or torture by the police or security forces. ZLHR has set up a network of lawyers who can take action immediately if necessary.” As the Matinenga case demonstrates, the work of the ZLHR lawyers is not without risk. “We know that we are taking risks and that the government sees us as a hostile organization. But ZLHR is not about politics – we defend the rights of all Zimbabweans. And we will continue to do so.”
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) was established in 1996 by lawyers and law students. The organization, to which 124 lawyers are affiliated, offers legal assistance to political prisoners and human rights activists who have been arrested. On a wider level, ZLHR is dedicated to promoting the rule of law and respect for human rights.