Zimbabwe is the new Pakistan?

May 20, 2009

Alec Muchadehama in his office, 19 August 2008
Alec Muchadehama in his office, 19 August 2008

Remember two years ago when then President Musharraf removed the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, setting off howls of protest from the Pakistani legal community? Many people, including Musharraf, seemed surprised that lawyers had it in them to take to the streets and demand respect for the rule of law.  But if any of you have ever been to a “bar review” (read booze fest) hosted any given Thursday evening by one of our nation’s law schools, or been to a patent bar continuing legal education course (I’ve heard those patent lawyers get rowdy), you nodded your head wisely as the Pakistani lawyers protested continuously for two years until the Chief Justice was reinstated.

Until recently, lawyers in Zimbabwe, despite being one of the most active civil society groups in the country, had for the most part avoided being swept up in the political machinations and repression experienced in recent years.  In the last few months, though, this seems to be changing. In February, two lawyers were arrested while observing a Valentine’s Day protest in Harare.  Then in March, the magistrate who granted bail to arrested prospective Minister of Agriculture Roy Bennett was arrested.  Last week, respected human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama was arrested in court for allegedly attempting to circumnavigate proper legal channels in securing the release of his clients on bail.  Now it was announced today that the two lawyers detained in February will go to trial on charges of “participating in a gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of the peace or bigotry.”

In response, lawyers and journalists promptly took to the streets in Harare today to protest government harassment.  Now, I’m not just saying this because I am a lawyer, but perhaps those pulling the strings in Zimbabwe might want to heed the lesson painfully learned by Musharraf, whose relatively rapid downfall is widely attributed to have commenced when he began messing around with lawyers.  To misappropriate Adam Sandler’s Zohan movie title, “You don’t mess with the lawyers.”