A life on the line

Some people you never forget. Beatrice Mtetwa, 53, a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe who recently won the Inamori Ethics Prize for improving mankind from Case Western Reserve University, is one of those people.

Beatrice Mtetwa who recently won the Inamori Ethics prize for improving mankind.
Beatrice Mtetwa who recently won the Inamori Ethics prize for improving mankind.

She's a believer, even though it may literally be the end of her. She believes in the rule of law in a country where the self-styled president for life, 87-year-old Robert Mugabe, does not.

Mugabe has jailed African and European journalists, some of whom Mtetwa has successfully defended, and he's known to pardon politically connected defendants. She knows from experience, she said.

In 1985, Mtetwa was a government prosecutor and had managed to convict four members of the ruling Zanu (PF) for forcing a political activist to take off her clothes, carry them on her head and walk through her neighbourhood naked. Her two humiliated teenage sons were forced to walk behind her.

"In African culture, that is the ultimate humiliation," said Mtetwa.

When Mugabe pardoned the four perpetrators, Mtetwa quit her government job, but she never stopped believing in the law. Not when judges faltered and handed out tongue lashings instead of jail time to Mugabe party members, out of fear of Mugabe or his party. Not even when she's been branded a traitor, ignored by the state media, beaten by the police and threatened with worse for defending journalists, human rights workers and political prisoners.

Keepers of the flame

To her, the Zimbabwe Constitution, which promises "fundamental rights and freedoms to the individual," is a living, breathing thing — and she and other human rights lawyers are the keepers of the flame, documenting judicial lapses, high crimes and real treason for a day when the law governs elite and poor Zimbabweans alike.

"What I decided a long time ago is my job is to push that envelope as far as I can," she said earlier this month. "If I don't challenge the things, then there is no record that this is how the judiciary behaved. It doesn't matter how many of my victories are there. The record will be there."

Let the record show that she's an equal-opportunity opponent of anyone who tramples on the law that she holds so dear. Maybe that's what happens when you learn to stand up for yourself early.

Mtetwa is the eldest child of her father's first wife and she remembers scolding him at six or seven for having so many children that he could not properly educate her sisters and brothers. Now, she's standing up to Mugabe, the man who freed his country from white rule, but who is now systematically running the nation into the ground.

Mtetwa is blunt about how Mugabe-style land reform has hurt the country. Farms stripped from white farmers, and from black farmers who crossed Mugabe and his party, were given to politically connected Zimbabweans, who let the land lie fallow, she said.

Unimpressed by MDC

She is unimpressed, though, with the MDC headed by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The opposition party is supposed to share power with Mugabe and could one day replace him. But while some opposition members have challenged the status quo, others seem more interested in getting fancy cars, she said.

The Zimbabwe that Mtetwa craves would have an impartial judiciary, an uncorrupted political body and electricity at night. She's betting her life that someday a piece of paper that says all Zimbabweans must be treated fairly will actually be the law of the land.

Let's hope she's right. – First published on www.cleveland.com

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