New York, May 10, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists today called for a full and transparent investigation into the police beating on Tuesday of prominent Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, a 2005 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, and three other attorneys.
Mtetwa, president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, suffered bruises on her back, arms, and legs after police in Harare beat her and three colleagues with rubber clubs for several minutes, she told CPJ. The four attorneys were forced to lie face down before being beaten, said Mtetwa, who was treated at a local hospital and released later that day.
“We condemn this vicious assault on Beatrice Mtetwa, a champion of the rights of journalists in a country that has trampled on the independent press,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “The government must conduct a full and transparent investigation into this outrageous act of police brutality and bring all those responsible to account.”
The four lawyers, dressed in professional robes, had been forced into a police truck and driven to an open area in Harare’s outskirts after officers broke up a protest of more than 60 lawyers outside Zimbabwe’s High Court, said Irene Petras, acting director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. The lawyers were gathering to present the justice minister with a petition protesting the treatment of two colleagues arrested last week, according to news reports. The two arrested lawyers were challenging the government’s detention of several opposition officials accused of involvement in bomb attacks after a police crackdown on the opposition in March.
Also injured in the beating were lawyers Chris Mhike, Colin Kuhini, and Terence Fitzpatrick, according to Petras.
In February, police banned demonstrations for three months, but Mtetwa told CPJ the gathering was lawful since required notice had been served to police the day before. The legality of the ban is being challenged in court.
Sternford Moyo, a veteran lawyer and president of the Southern Africa Development Community Lawyers’ Association, told CPJ that legal action against the police will follow. “We will not be encouraging impunity for the brazen contempt of the rule of law,” he said.
Mtetwa has defended dozens of journalists and fought for press freedom, all at great personal risk. In March, police officers manhandled and threatened her while she was serving them court papers, according to news reports. In October 2003, she filed charges against police after being detained on specious allegations of drunken driving for three hours, during which she was beaten and choked, according to CPJ research.
“The government should not frustrate the efforts of lawyers to provide anyone with their entitled right to legal counsel. It has nothing to do with politics,” Mtetwa said.