IBA president says that authorities should “abandon the decision urgently and demonstrate respect for the independence of lawyers”
The International Bar Association (IBA) and its human rights institute (IBAHRI) have slammed a Zimbabwe court’s decision to bar human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa from representing client Hopewell Chin’ono, an investigative journalist and critic of the government who had been detained on charges of corruption.
The ruling was made last Tuesday, with Harare Magistrate Ngoni Nduna holding Mtetwa in contempt of court for comments made on social media. Nduna called for Zimbabwe’s prosecutor-general to consider initiating contempt of court proceedings, and for the Law Society of Zimbabwe to revoke Mtetwa’s practicing licence.
IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto urged authorities to disregard the ruling and “demonstrate respect for the independence of lawyers,” he 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,” Neto said.
Mtetwa, who is a member of the IBAHRI council, had faced a number of what the organisation said were “harassment and intimidation attempts by the Zimbabwean authorities,” including having a group of soldiers march before her office, blocking legal conferences with Chin’ono and calling for a prison officer to be present during discussions between Mtetwa and Chin’ono—something that the IBA said is “a direct violation of section 50 (5)(b) of the Zimbabwean Constitution.”
“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,” said IBAHRI co-chair Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG. “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.”
The IBA and IBAHRI also emphasised Chin’ono’s right to his counsel of choice.
“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,” said Dr Mark Ellis, executive director of the IBA.
Ellis pointed out that Nduna’s ruling was an indication of how judicial independence continues to be threatened in Zimbabwe, and said that the authorities should “end this pattern of intimidation.”
“When lawyers find themselves operating in a setting not conducive to upholding justice, the IBAHRI is committed to exposing such situations,” said IBAHRI co-chair Anne Ramberg Dr jur hc. “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.”