Director and Producer Lorie Conway gives us an update on the path ahead for Beatrice, Zimbabwe, and for the documentary film Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law. The film was screened at the World Justice Forum IV in the Hague in July, as well as co-screened with WJP in Seattle and Washington, DC.
“This woman has guts, she never stops fighting, no fear. I`ll hand it to you, Beatrice. You get a salute from me…”
That comment, coming from a reader of one of the hundreds of articles written about the arrest, trial and acquittal of Beatrice Mtetwa in 2013, sums up the outpouring of international support for Zimbabwe’s most famous human rights lawyer. Or, as some in the country would say infamous lawyer, given that many of her defendants are those opposed to the Mugabe government and get in trouble more for being on the wrong side of the regime than the law.
On March 17th, 2013, the day after a national referendum overwhelmingly approved a new constitution showcasing democratic rights, it was Beatrice herself who felt the wrath of the government—getting arrested for asking police to show her a search warrant as they entered her clients house.
While recording the police officers activities on her cell phone and loudly proclaiming that what they were doing was “unconstitutional, illegal and unlawful,” Mtetwa was jailed and subsequently charged with “obstructing justice” along with a host of 19 other charges, including calling the police officers “Mugabe’s dogs.” For eight days, Beatrice sat in jail, while two requests for bail were denied.
“I’m glad to have had the experience,” she told me recently. Adding, “I can now say I know what being in jail feels like and what the conditions are first hand.”
Family members brought her food, water, and blankets since none were provided; there was one toilet in the cell that she shared with 15 other women, built to accommodate less than half that number. Flushing the toilet was possible only outside the cell with guards often ignoring requests to do so. But they did allow Beatrice to meet with other prisoners who were asking for legal counsel, so she found herself working even while incarcerated.
Beatrice’s trial began in June, with Harare magistrate Rumbidzai Mugwagwa presiding. She pleaded not guilty to all charges, saying she was “just being used as the example” and, "there will be many more to follow.” Although legal representation was offered by the International Bar Association, and defense lawyer Harrison Nkomo was at her side, Beatrice played a large role in defending herself. Many of her colleagues and friends attended the four month trial which included several delays and cancellations. Mtetwa disputed claims that she had interfered with the duties of the police, who, ironically, did not have a search warrant at the time they were seizing items from her clients home.
During an interview for the film about her work upholding the law in Zimbabwe, Beatrice said this about the country’s twisted justice system: “I often go to court knowing I’m going to lose a case not because the law is against you but because the politics of the case is against you.” Lawyers and human rights workers in Zimbabwe call it “persecution by prosecution” and Beatrice Mtetwa’s trial is a perfect example of the regime’s attempt to hamper critics and opponents of Robert Mugabe’s government, especially ahead of the disputed July elections won by Mugabe. “They wanted to completely destabilize my practice…to slow me down, to hamper me from doing my work,” said Beatrice.
In a report titled, Zimbabwe: Agenda for the Government 2013-2018, issued this past November by Amnesty International, they noted that in spite of Zimbabwe’s new constitution, human rights and democratic rights continue to be abridged through the arbitrary arrests of civil society groups and activists. The report stated that many arrested were unlawfully detained on spurious criminal charges, made to spend long periods in jail, and denied bail before facing drawn out trials that often resulted in the state abandoning the cases, or the activists being acquitted.
On November 26th, the day of Beatrice Mtetwa’s acquittal, defense lawyer Harrison Nkomo said the “state knew all along that she was innocent.” In her ruling Magistrate Mugwagwa said “From the testimonies of state witnesses, there is no evidence she obstructed their duties.” Beatrice felt vindicated. “This was a set-up and obviously the court has seen through it. The contradictions were many and varying,” she said standing outside Harare’s courthouse. “I’m free at last.”
Producing the film and getting to know Beatrice along the way has been a real privilege. There have been challenges. From meager funding to balancing the desire to distribute the film widely, including in Zimbabwe, along with the need to protect the safety of those who participated in the film. But with the support of our main funder the US Institute of Peace--and the support of the World Justice Project, who hosted the premiere screening of the film followed by an incredible concert by Thomas Mapfumo, whose music is heard throughout the film--the documentary has managed to make, I believe, a ripple of difference.
In choosing to build the film around Beatrice, we thought she would be a compelling figure. She is that, and more. She’s inspiring, smart, courageous, and ethical. We have been struck at each screening of the film by the number of people who come up to us and tell us how inspired they are by Beatrice. She’s one of the role models for a new Africa, and an example by which others—young and old, male and female—can measure their country’s leaders, and ask of them the same standards of conduct she exemplifies.
Currently, the documentary about Beatrice Mtetwa and her courageous work in Zimbabwe, titled Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law, is being broadcast through Fox Africa and other distribution and screenings are taking place around the world, including New Zealand, Australia, Europe, the US, and Canada.
With a small grant from the London based Bertha Foundation, thousands of free dvds of the short version of the film are being distributed to schools, libraries, community groups and law societies through partnerships with NGO’s and foundations like the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa. Request for the free dvds have come from various groups located in Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Malawi, and many other African countries.