HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's leading rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was acquitted Tuesday of charges of obstructing justice and being unruly to police officers.
But human rights activists say the charges should have never been brought against her in the first place and they charge the government has used such dubious charges, jailing and court trials to hamper critics and opponents of long-time President Robert Mugabe.
Mtetwa has been on trial since June after she was arrested on March 17, a day after a national referendum overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that enshrines democratic rights. She was accused of using abusive language toward officers who were searching the house of an official from the opposition party of former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Harare magistrate Rumbidzai Mugwagwa on Tuesday declared Mtetwa not guilty citing that there is no evidence of the charges against her. "I'm free at last" Mtetwa said joyfully when she was acquitted. Fellow lawyers in court cheered.
"I feel vindicated," she told reporters outside court. Mtetwa said her arrest and subsequent trial was a "set up" to prevent her from representing her clients ahead of disputed July elections won by Mugabe.
"They wanted to completely destabilize my practice," Mtetwa said. When she was arrested in March Mtetwa was held in jail for eight nights, during which time police ignored a judge's order to release her. Her prolonged detention prompted protests from African and international legal groups.
Rights groups described Mtetwa's arrest as a sign of a heightened clampdown and intimidation of human rights lawyers before the elections. Mtetwa denied any wrongdoing saying she merely asked police for a search warrant after they failed to show her one.
But the state alleged in court that she shouted "at the top of her voice," saying that what police were doing was "unconstitutional, illegal and unlawful." State prosecutors claimed Mtetwa insulted the police officers calling them "imbwa dzaMugabe," which means "Mugabe's dogs" in the local Shona language and "confused cockroaches."
Defense lawyer Harrison Nkomo said those allegations were trumped up against Mtetwa. Nkomo told reporters the "state knew all along that she was innocent." Global rights watchdog Amnesty International in a report titled "Zimbabwe: Agenda for The Government 2013-2018," released Monday said the Zimbabwe government has failed to respect human and democratic rights guaranteed in the nation's new constitution.
Amnesty's report said despite the new charter the Mugabe government has continued intimidation and arbitrary arrests of civic rights groups and activists as well as those viewed to be critical of the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Many were unlawfully detained on spurious criminal charges and made to spend long periods in jail waiting to appear in court after being unreasonably denied bail, said Amnesty. "In all the cases documented, the activists were acquitted or the state abandoned the cases, or the cases are pending," the report said.
In her ruling Tuesday, Magistrate Mugwagwa said the police had Mtetwa in handcuffs and therefore she couldn't have interfered with their search. "From the testimonies of state witnesses, there is no evidence she (Mtetwa) obstructed their duties" she said.
Mtetwa is the recipient of an array of awards from international jurists' groups including the American Bar Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists for a distinguished career of three decades.
She has represented Tsvangirai, Mugabe's main opponent, and several human rights defenders and journalists.