The order of the Magistrates’ Court of Zimbabwe barring lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa from continuing as defence legal counsel for journalist Hopewell Chin’ono is a violation of Chin’ono’s right to a fair trial and Mtetwa’s right to express her opinions freely, said the ICJ today.
“Hopewell Chin’ono is already facing persecution because of his reporting on alleged corruption and now his lawyer is prevented from defending him properly. The Magistrate Court’s decision violates Zimbabwe’s domestic, international and regional legal obligations regarding freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial,” said ICJ Secretary General Sam Zarifi.
Hopewell Chin’ono, a prominent Zimbabwean journalist, is currently in custody and is facing trial on charges of inciting public violence, related to his reporting on corruption.
He appointed Beatrice Mtetwa, a prominent Zimbabwean human rights lawyer to act as his defence legal counsel.
After Hopewell Chin’ono was denied bail, it is alleged that a Facebook page by the name “Beatrice Mtetwa and The Rule of Law” posted the following statements:
“Where is the outrage from the international community that Hopewell Chin’ono is being held as a political prisoner? His life is in serious peril. Raise awareness about his unlawful imprisonment. Do not let him to be forgotten. You or someone you love could be the next one abducted from your home and put in leg irons.”
On account of these alleged statements and at the instance of an application by the State, the Magistrates’ court barred Beatrice Mtetwa from continuing as defense legal counsel on grounds that she made statements which demonstrates that “she is no longer detached from the case to continue appearing in it” and has lost the “requisite objectivity of an officer of the court”.
The full judgment by the court can be accessed here.
Beatrice Mtetwa denied ownership of or control over the said Facebook page. Filmmaker Lorie Conway is listed as the only administrator of the said Facebook page. Despite this, the Magistrate’s Court ruled that Beatrice Mtetwa is aware of the page, approved its creation and therefore, these statements are attributable to her.
“Regardless of whether or not these statements can be attributed to Beatrice Mtetwa, the International Commission of Jurists is concerned about the chilling effect which the judgment has on the exercise of freedom of expression by lawyers, the accused persons’ right to legal representation and the right to fair trial. The judgment seems to suggest that if a lawyer makes public statements such as those allegedly attributed to Beatrice Mtetwa, the lawyer should be barred from continuing as legal counsel in the matter—and that is contrary to international standards regarding the role of lawyers,” Zarifi said.
This right is underscored in Principle 23 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers which states that:
“Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly. In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights…”
The right to legal representation is recognised in section 70(1)(d) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. This guarantees an accused person the right to appoint a legal practitioner of their choice to act as their defence attorney. The same right is underscored in article 14(3)(b) of the ICCPR and article 7(1) of the African Charter. The right to legal representation is an integral element of the right to fair trial as elaborately explained under the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa.
Shaazia Ebrahim (Media Officer) email: Shaazia.Ebrahim(a)icj.orgNewsPress releases