Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Beatrice Mtetwa, Human Rights Lawyer

Beatrice Mtetwa is a Zimbabwean lawyer who has been internationally recognized for her defense of journalists and press freedom.  The New York Times described her in 2008 as "Zimbabwe's top human rights lawyer".

Mtetwa received her LLB from the University of Botswana and Swaziland in 1981 and spent the next two years working as a prosecuting attorney in Swaziland. In 1983, she moved to Zimbabwe, where she continued working as a prosecutor until 1989. That year, she went into private practice, and soon began specializing in human rights law. In one of her more notable cases, she successfully challenged a section of Zimbabwe's Private Voluntary Organizations Act which allowed a government minister the authority to dissolve or replace the board members of non-governmental organizations. She also challenged the results of 37 districts in the 2000 parliamentary elections. In a PBS documentary, Mtetwa described her motives for her activism as "not because there is any glory or cash to it and not because I'm trying to antagonize the government... I'm doing it because it's a job that's got to be done".

Mtetwa is particularly noted for her defense of arrested journalists, both local and international. In 2003, for example, she won a court order preventing the deportation of Guardian reporter Andrew Meldrum, presenting it to security officials at Harare International Airport only minutes before Meldrum's plane was scheduled to depart. She also won acquittals for detained reporters Toby Hamden and Julian Simmonds from London's Sunday Telegraph, who had been arrested during coverage of the April parliamentary election on charges of working without government accreditation. In April 2008, she secured the release of New York Times reporter Barry Bearak, who had been imprisoned on similar charges. She also defended many local journalists arrested in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.

In 2003, Mtetwa was arrested on allegations of drunk driving.  At the police station, she was reportedly beaten and choked before being released three hours later without a formal charge. Though unable to speak for two days after the attack, she returned on the third day with a folder of medical evidence in order to file charges against the police officers who assaulted her. Police officers reportedly attacked Mtetwa again in 2007, beating her and three colleagues with rubber truncheons during a march protesting harassment of Zimbabwe's lawyers.
In an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mtetwa described her procedure for averting potential attacks:
"I think I confront the danger immediately before it happens. I always make sure that if, for instance, I'm called in the middle of the night to a scene that is potentially dangerous, I make sure that there are as many media practitioners as possible, particularly to record what will happen there. And in the glare of cameras I find that people don't want to do what they would want to do. So in a lot of ways I think I've been lucky, and I haven't received as much harassment as one would have expected, or as much as other human rights defenders have had."

In 2005, she won the Interantional Press Freedom Award of the Committed to Protect Journalists.  The award citation stated that "in a country where the law is used as a weapon against independent journalists, Mtetwa has defended journalists and argued for press freedom, all at great personal risk."  She also won the group's Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008.

Mtetwa was also received several awards from legal organizations. In 2009, the European Bar Human Rights Institute awarded her the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize ("The award given by lawyers to a lawyer"), reserved each year to a lawyer who throughout his or her career has illustrated, by activity or suffering, the defense of human rights in the world.  Mtetwa also won the 2010 International Human Rights award of the American Bar Association.  In 2011, she was awarded the Inamori Ethics Prize by Case Western Reserve University in the United States.  And, most recently (2014), she was named a recipient of the International Women of Courage Award that is annually given out by the United States Department of State to women around the world who have shown leadership, courage, resourcefulness and willingness to sacrifice for others, especially for better promotion of  women's rights.  

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