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Lawyers flee Zimbabwe as Mugabe regime cracks down: activists PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 09 June 2008

AFP, JOHANNESBURG - Activists say Zimbabwe may be facing an exodus of human rights lawyers like Makoni because of a crackdown by President Robert Mugabe's regime.

Rights lawyer Andrew Makoni hopes he is safe now as he sits in his new office here, but he remains shaken after packing up and leaving Zimbabwe recently out of fears he would be killed for his work.

"My departure was so sudden I had to leave my family behind," said Makoni, who has represented Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. "They will be joining me once their visas are sorted."

The last couple months have been especially perilous, the activists said, with Mugabe's 28-year reign over the country in jeopardy ahead of a June 27 presidential run-off.

Lawyers have been routinely threatened or arrested, testing even the most hardened among them, they said.

"State institutions are being used to carry out atrocities against innocent civilians and those defending them," said Beatrice Mthethwa, president of the Zimbabwe Law Society.

Makoni represented Tsvangirai, who faces Mugabe in the upcoming vote, when the opposition leader was beaten up and arrested in March last year. The lawyer said working in Zimbabwe had become almost impossible.

"If you represent a political or human rights abuse case you are automatically associated with the cause of your client and subjected to intimidation and arrest," he said.

Makoni claimed he fled after security forces assigned to a police station near his home in Harare hatched a plan to kill him.

"Areas outside Harare like Muthoko, Murewa and Guruve are notorious for politically-motivated tortures, disappearances and killings, and lawyers are often ambushed when they visit these areas," he said.

Last year, Makoni and his partner Alec Muchadehama made headlines when they were detained after trying to obtain bail for members of the opposition party.

They were charged with obstruction of justice and later released on bail following an uproar by rights lawyers and organisations.

In the last two weeks, four of Makoni's clients who were members of the opposition party were mysteriously killed, he said.

He claimed the situation was so bad that the number of human rights lawyers throughout the country had dropped to about 10.

Irene Petras, director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said only a handful of the bravest lawyers were willing to take on the government.

"We are not letting the biased and volatile political climate undermine our work," said Petras.

The Johannesburg-based Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) said Makoni's flight was likely to be followed by others.

The organisation in recent months spearheaded a Durban court bid to prevent a Chinese ship from offloading its cargo of arms intended for Zimbabwe.

SALC director Nicole Fritz said it is a deeply troubling sign of the situation in Zimbabwe when the best and most courageous human rights lawyers are targeted and forced to flee.

"South Africa and regional leaders need to put human rights monitors on the ground now because the Zimbabwean authorities who refuse to relinquish power cannot be trusted to secure the lives -- let alone the interests -- of their citizens," said Fritz.

Lawyers in Zimbabwe say working conditions have been deteriorating for several years, but the situation has worsened over the past couple months.

"These days being a lawyer means you are also an MDC member," Mthethwa of the Zimbabwe Law Society said, referring to the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party.

"Perpetrators often get off the hook as incidents of abuse go unreported. Even if they are reported nothing much gets done about it."
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