Beatrice Mtetwa and the rule of law in Zimbabwe
Last week a group of us from the office went to the premier of a documentary at the LSE called Beatrice Mtetwa and The Rule Of Law. Having already seen a short preview of the film the day before we knew we were in for a treat. Since working on the Zimbabwe campaign Beatrice Mtetwa has been at the forefront of our attentions as one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in Zimbabwe. I have been following her inspiring work closely here at Amnesty, keeping on top of any developments, so when I heard that she would be attending the screening I was pretty excited.
Well I have to say that the film did not disappoint. It was a powerful portrayal of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, and the difficult and extremely dangerous environment in which Beatrice does her work, against a backdrop of her life growing up, and her journey to becoming a human rights lawyer.
Beatrice has defended a number of high profile human rights activists including Jestina Mukoko of the Zimbawbe Peace Project (ZPP) whose story is one of several that features in the film. Jestina has been targeted by security forces on a number of occasions because of the work she does in exposing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. After the 2008 presidential elections that saw a period of extreme state-sponsored violence, Jestina was taken from her home by security forces in the middle of the night.
She disappeared for three weeks, and when the police finally brought her back it was found that she had been tortured, which she describes vividly in an interview in the film. Beatrice worked tirelessly with the courts to find out where Jestina was, have the charges against her dropped and having her period of detention declared unlawful once she was returned, although no one suffered any punishment for this.
We are once again seeing a crackdown on civil society and human rights defenders in Zimbabwe ahead of the upcoming elections, with activists including Jestina being arrested and ZPP having their offices raided.
What I really liked about the film is that it gave you a sense of Beatrice as a person. I think it’s really easy to think about human rights defenders in a romanticised way, superheroes fighting injustice. But these are just ordinary people like you and me, with parents and children, who have a lot to lose.
Beatrice has also been targeted with violence and intimidation by security forces because of the work that she does, and she has chosen to continue doing this work in the face of this violence because as a lawyer she feels it is her job to protect people’s human rights. Beatrice is currently on trial for ‘obstructing the course of justice’ after she asked police to present a search warrant as they were searching the office of one of her clients. The police did not produce a search warrant, and instead arrested her.
Human rights defenders weren’t born with a calling to defend the rights of others, but rather through their life and experiences have chosen this path. It was interesting hearing Beatrice in the film say that when people first meet her they often say ““oh, you look different to what I was expecting” they expect me to be this big woman, with no femininity at all”, this seemed funny to me, because I have been finding myself describing her to people as this larger than life character, when in fact seeing her in person she’s actually a petite woman who, you find out through the film, is apparently mad about shoes! But it’s her strength and conviction in speaking about the law and defending human rights that has created this other persona in people’s minds.
The most exciting part of the evening came when while everybody mingled together with a glass of wine at the end of the evening, we managed to catch her attention to tell her how wonderful it was to see the film and how grateful we were to her for giving us an interview for the latest edition of the Amnesty magazine. Her response to us was to say “We are really grateful for your support. We don't often get to say it but without your support no-one would know about us. It makes a real difference."
I think when you’re working in an office, trying to plan strategies on how to show solidarity, sometimes it can be hard to see what effect it’s actually having. For me, this short meeting with Beatrice has reinforced the importance of every person who signs a petition or writes a letter to show support for the work of people like Beatrice. Solidarity does make a difference.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.