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IBA and IBAHRI condemn Zimbabwe court’s barring of Beatrice Mtetwa from defending Hopewell Chin’ono

Tuesday 18 August 2020

The International Bar Association and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) condemn Harare Magistrate Ngoni Nduna’s decision to hold prominent Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa in contempt of court and to bar her from representing detained investigative journalist and government critic Hopewell Chin’ono.

IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto said: ‘Beatrice Mtetwa is a phenomenal champion of human rights in Zimbabwe. The news of her disqualification from representing her client, Hopewell Chin’ono, is disturbing. The barring will undoubtedly send a chilling message to legal professionals across the country to avoid representing clients accused of certain types of alleged transgressions. I urge the Zimbabwean authorities to abandon the decision urgently and demonstrate respect for the independence of lawyers.’

On 18 August 2020, Magistrate Nduna ordered Ms Mtetwa to step down from representing her client Mr Chin’ono. Magistrate Nduna ruled that Ms Mtetwa had posted comments on social media that denigrated the courts and was thus in contempt of court. Ms Mtetwa will appeal these charges. The referenced Facebook page, ‘Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law’, is a website created and run by an American documentarist, who made a film with the same title on the importance of the rule of law.

Magistrate Nduna has also ordered the Prosecutor-General of Zimbabwe to consider instituting contempt of court proceedings against Ms Mtetwa and has called on the Law Society of Zimbabwe to revoke her licence to practise.

IBA Executive Director Dr Mark Ellis, commented: ‘It is universally understood that a person facing trial is entitled to counsel of choice. This is a fundamental right. Attempting to prevent Beatrice Mtetwa from acting for Hopewell Chin’ono – imprisoned for almost a month after reporting alleged government corruption – signifies a certain level of desperation on the part of the authorities. The action reveals that, unfortunately, judicial independence continues to be under assault in Zimbabwe. We urge the Zimbabwean authorities to end this pattern of intimidation.’

The decision to bar IBAHRI Council member Ms Mtetwa from representing her client is the latest in a series of harassment and intimidation attempts by the Zimbabwean authorities that include:

  • sending a cohort of approximately 50 soldiers to march in front of her office on 14 August 2020;
  • blocking direct, private legal conferences with her detained client; and
  • informing her that a prison officer must be present during client-lawyer discussions – a direct violation of section 50 (5)(b) of the Zimbabwean Constitution.

 

IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996 – 2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG stated: ‘The IBAHRI reminds Zimbabwe’s authorities that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure the security of lawyers. The state also has a duty to protect the right of lawyers to practice their profession without hindrance, as enshrined in Principle 1 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. Further, Principle 16, states that governments shall ensure that lawyers “are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; (…) and shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.”’

Mr Kirby added: ‘The recent decision by the Harare magistrate is in violation of this principle, as it hinders Ms Mtetwa’s ability to perform her professional functions as Mr Chin’ono’s lawyer and effectively applies criminal sanctions against her for executing her professional duties.’

IBAHRI Co-Chair, and immediate past Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr jur hc, commented: ‘There is no substitute for a robust, transparent, accountable and independent judiciary that is free from improper interference and that acts expeditiously, impartially and without prejudice. Similarly, the right of the client to engage counsel of choice is sacrosanct. When lawyers find themselves operating in a setting not conducive to upholding justice, the IBAHRI is committed to exposing such situations. In this instance, we call for Harare Magistrate Nduna to revoke immediately his decision to bar Ms Mtetwa from continuing to act for Mr Chin’ono and to drop charges against her, as well as any and all attempts to cancel her practicing licence.’

ENDS

Notes to the Editor

  1. Download the IBA Standards for the Independence of the Legal Profession.
  2. View related IBAHRI items on Zimbabwe: www.ibanet.org/Human_Rights_Institute/Work_by_regions/Africa/Zimbabwe
  3. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.
  4. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), an autonomous and financially independent entity, works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.

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