By Nicole Fritz
Johannesburg — WHEN I travel in southern Africa meeting human rights lawyers and civil society activists, whose work often earns them the enmity of their governments, I play a rather perverse, fatalistic game with myself — weighing up which country, if it had to happen, I would prefer to be arrested and detained in.
It would have to be Zimbabwe because, despite the almost total collapse of the rule of law in that country, there are few lawyers anywhere in the world more implacable in their quest to see justice done.
One of the finest, Alec Muchadehama, was recently arrested and detained. His wrongdoing, apparently, was only that he had secured the release earlier of three high-profile political prisoners — two senior Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) officials, Gandhi Mudzingwa and Chris Dlamini, and journalist Andrison Manyere.Muchadehama is a lawyer accustomed to having to locate his clients by going from one set of police holding cells to another, circling the perimeter calling their names, hoping he might hear them answer, because the police routinely deny that they have his clients in custody.
In every recent major incident of violence directed at Zanu (PF)’s political opponents, Muchadehama has struggled to the front lines, putting his own safety at risk so that he might give legal defence — whether it was to the MDC and civil society leadership brutalised by police in March 2007 or to the scores rounded up at MDC headquarters several weeks later, many detained and tortured for several weeks.
Last year, when a number of Zimbabwean lawyers, magistrates and prosecutors fled to SA, persecuted in the post-election period for being perceived to be defending the MDC or censuring the Zanu (PF)-aligned militias, Muchadehama — one of the primary targets — stayed put in Zimbabwe, traversing the country, often with a security tail, as he went to the aid of those assaulted and tortured and the families of individuals who had simply disappeared.This isn’t the first time that Muchadehama has been arrested.
In May 2007, in remarkably similar circumstances, Muchadehama and his law partner, Andrew Makoni, were arrested and their offices raided — a tactic intended to intimidate and stop them defending MDC members detained on trumped-up charges of terrorism.The Law Society of Zimbabwe bravely protested about their arrests, earning several prominent lawyers, including society president Beatrice Mtetwa, savage beatings at the hands of the police. Still, it showed that if Muchadehama and Makoni are exceptionally brave lawyers, they find a number of like-minded peers in the Zimbabwean legal profession. Two years later, and despite a new transitional government, Muchadehama finds himself in the same situation — arrested in retaliation for defending people facing spurious charges of terrorism.
For those watching developments in Zimbabwe, praying that the country is now finally on its way, Muchadehama’s arrest will be hoped to be an aberration; the desperate shuddering of an old structure making way for a new.It is far more encouraging to focus on what has been gained: that food and basic commodities are now more easily available to Zimbabweans; that cholera is being curbed. But these humanitarian accomplishments are not the making of any semblance of a democratic state.
It is said that democracies are nations of laws, not men. In Zimbabwe, the outlines of democracy will not even begin to show until men such as Muchadehama can practise law, can defend those who are accused of political crimes, without the fear that they themselves will be arrested and harassed.
Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.Copyright © 2009 Business Day. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).