In a week that shall always be remembered as consequential for the vindication of Zimbabwean human rights defenders and civil society organisations, on 26 November, Harare Magistrate Rumbidzai Mugwagwa delivered a verdict of not guilty in the Beatrice Mtetwa trial where charges of contravening Section 184 (1) (g) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
The Prosecution had alleged that Mtetwa, a fiery and prominent human rights lawyer, had defeated or obstructed the course of justice. She was arrested on 17 March 2013 and had been defending the matter in court since 10 June 2013.
According to the Forum’s Court Report, The Magistrate gave reasons for her judgment saying that Mtetwa had done nothing to interfere with the investigations the police were conducting. She cited that the police testimony was contradictory and it did nothing to put the Mtetwa to her defence.
The inspection in loco conducted at the premises where the arrest was effected also served to cast the State’s case in doubt and bad light as it was established that there was no way Mtetwa could have interfered with what was going on in an area of the house where she could not see what was happening; whilst guarded and in handcuffs in a vehicle outside the premises.
The Magistrate castigated the police for presenting contradictory testaments when they are professionals whose work relies on observation. She also made it clear that it is not an offence to take photographs and in any case after forensic examination, Mtetwa’s phone was found without any evidence that photographs of the scene had been taken. The Magistrate found that there is no evidence that Mtetwa stopped or interfered with the search and returned a verdict of not guilty.
In addition to the Mtetwa case, on 22 November the same Magistrates Court acquitted Abel Chikomo, the Forum’s Director on charges of running an ‘illegal’ organisation. The details of the case and our analysis can be accessed here.
Both the Mtetwa and Chikomo cases are reminiscent of the infamous Glen View 29 case, in which Justice Bhunu chided police officers for their unprofessional conduct in arresting human rights campaigner Cynthia Manjoro and MDC-T youth assembly president Solomon Madzore and other activists as they did not have credible evidence linking them to the commission of the offence. In that case the judge said the police had arrested Manjoro as an inducement for her boyfriend to surrender himself to the police in connection with the commission of the offence. The Judge made these remarks on 19 September when he passed a not guilty verdict on 21 of the Glen View 29 activists who include Cynthia Manjoro, Solomon Madzore, Stanford Maengahama, and others.
Given this pattern where the police arrest human rights defenders and the judiciary takes a different stance, albeit, very late, could this be the beginning of a new era in the Zimbabwean Judiciary? The jury is still out on this. There is more to be said about Zimbabwe’s justice delivery system.