HARARE - A judge in Zimbabwe sparked controversy this week when he barred a prominent lawyer from representing a journalist facing charges of stoking violence. The judge said attorney Beatrice Mtetwa should be charged with contempt of court and asked the Law Society of Zimbabwe to revoke her license. Critics say it is an attempt to curtail the journalist's right to choose his attorney.
Richard Chidza, spokesman of the Law Society of Zimbabwe – the statutory body which licenses lawyers – told VOA his organization has yet to receive the ruling by magistrate Ngoni Nduna which orders the organization to review the license of Beatrice Mtetwa.
“Once we receive the order, we can then apply our mind to it and issue a necessary response to what has been ordered by the magistrate. But for now, a position is that we await the order and the judgment,” he said.
Mtetwa is a member of Zimbabwe Lawyers of Human Rights, a group that has often challenged the government. Judge Nduna said Mtetwa showed contempt for the justice system when she said journalist Hopewell Chin’ono had been abducted rather than arrested. He also cited a letter she wrote to court officials, accusing the judge of denying bail to suspects arrested on politically motivated charges.
Lovemore Madhuku is a professor of constitutional law at University of Zimbabwe and a veteran lawyer.
He said the right of an accused person to be represented by the lawyer of his or her choice is one of the most fundamental rights in any democratic society.
“So if there were any issues relating to the conduct of Beatrice, that ought to have been handled outside the court. They should have given more focus to the fact that what was before the court was the right to liberty for Hopewell. The only recourse is to approach a High Court judge to have that decision set aside on an urgent basis. (The) decision can set aside without the difficult formalities because it is a decision made while proceedings for liberty are in progress,” said Madhuku.
Ziyambi Ziyambi, Zimbabwe’s justice minister, said Wednesday that the government will not comment on the developments, as it was not cited in the judge’s ruling.
Mtetwa believes she did nothing wrong in her quest to secure bail for journalist Chin’ono who has been in prison since his arrest July 20. Chin’ono was arrested together with opposition leader Jacob Ngaruvhume on allegations of stocking violence ahead of an anti-government protest.
Mtetwa sees the hand of the government at work and suspects the judge’s order will affect both her own career and the work of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
“It is not a coincidence that an order that says I must be prosecuted. When an order comes from a court that is hearing the case, there will be that chilling effect. The intention is to stop us from defending certain types of clients. Obviously, we are going to challenge the decision. But it means the right to legal representation has been severely curtailed by the courts, which are actually supposed to be expanding that right,” she said.
On Wednesday, Chin’ono was back at the court for his third bail attempt with another official Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Mtetwa was at the same court representing members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change facing charges of participating in an illegal public gathering.