Leading Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was released on bail on Monday after spending a week in jail in a case that has raised concerns about a crackdown by President Robert Mugabe’s security forces before elections.
Mtetwa, who has won international awards for her defense of journalists and opposition politicians, and four aides of Mugabe rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai were arrested on March 17, a day after Zimbabweans voted to curb presidential powers.
Mtetwa was charged with obstructing police after officers said she shouted at and took photographs of police when they were searching the home of one of the Tsvangirai officials.
The aides were charged with breaching official secrets laws and will appear before the high court on Tuesday to seek bail.
High Court Judge Joseph Musakwa, granting bail of $500, described Mtetwa as «forceful, combative and abrasive» but said the male police officers could have easily restrained her if she was hindering their work.
«If she was a commando she would take no prisoners,» he said in a court room packed with lawyers, relatives and two cabinet ministers from Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.
Anti-riot police stood guard outside the court house.
Musakwa set aside an earlier decision by a magistrate to deny Mtetwa bail, saying it was not often a lawyer was arrested while representing a client.
Mtetwa was defiant after her release, telling reporters outside the High Court that her arrest was an attack on the country’s human rights lawyers and she would not be the last.
«I was just being used as the first example but there will be many to follow as we get into the elections mode,» Mtetwa said, wearing a red and white prison jersey over her shoulders which she said was a souvenir from a detained inmate.
«I will not be cowed, I was doing my job,» she said.
Zimbabweans are expected to vote in a parliamentary and presidential election this year that will decide whether 89-year-old Mugabe will add to his three-decade rule.
The country’s security chiefs openly campaign for Mugabe, urging their subordinates to vote for the ageing leader. The new constitution seeks to keep members of the security establishment out of local politics.
The March 16 referendum passed peacefully but Tsvangirai’s MDC and civil groups fear that Mugabe’s ZANU-PF will resort to violence as in previous elections.
Tsvangirai and Mugabe were forced to share power after violent elections in 2008. The MDC accuses the military, war veterans and youth brigades of leading the violent campaign.