HARARE, Zimbabwe — An independent Zimbabwean lawyers' group said Monday the continued detention of one of its top members, the country's most prominent human rights attorney Beatrice Mtetwa, highlights the urgent need to reform of law enforcement, two days after a referendum on a new constitution to strengthen human rights.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human rights said that a High Court judge, in a special overnight hearing, ordered Mtetwa's release before dawn Monday, but police refused to comply. Mtetwa was arrested Sunday.
Mtetwa is charged with obstructing justice while representing four officials of the prime minister's party, also arrested Sunday.
Irene Petras, director of the lawyers' group, said the refusal Monday by police to free Mtetwa reinforces calls for a full overhaul of the country's policing before presidential elections later this year.
Petras said Mtetwa was taken from cells at a police station in Harare's suburbs to the headquarters of the police Law and Order section on Monday but later was returned to the cells.
"We are well aware of the Machiavellian tactics of law enforcement agents who have everything to fear from lawyers who represent their clients and insist on full compliance with the law and constitutional safeguards," she said.
She said there were hopes that the new constitution would bring about reforms in the police and military, seen as loyal to President Robert Mugabe.
"For every Beatrice Mtetwa that state agents and institutions put behind bars ... to embarrass, humiliate and punish without lawful cause, there are 10 other human rights lawyers waiting to take up the mantle," she said.
Mtetwa, who has won an array of awards from international bodies, including the American Bar Association and the European Bar Human Rights Institute, during her legal career of three decades, was charged Sunday with obstructing the course of justice when representing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's chief legal adviser, Thabani Mpofu, and four staff in the prime minister's office who were arrested and accused of impersonating police by compiling dossiers on unspecified crimes.
Mpofu is a senior attorney who is the head of the research and development department in the prime minister's office.
Democracy and rights groups routinely gather witness accounts of alleged human rights crimes and abuses of power in state institutions, including the police force.
Mtetwa has represented Tsvangirai and his supporters in high profile cases where she has frequently accused police of the wrongful arrest and detention of perceived Mugabe opponents without sufficient evidence.
The official state election body said Monday vote counting on Saturday's constitutional referendum was continuing Monday. Early returns from an estimated 2 million ballots cast showed a "landslide" of about 80 percent of votes in favor of accepting the 170-page draft constitution that curbs presidential powers and limits presidential office to two five-year terms, a clause that is not retrospective and does not affect Mugabe, who led the nation to independence in 1980, if he wins new presidential and parliamentary elections slated for around July.
Zimbabwe has 6.6 million registered voters.
Polling observers said turnout was generally low – about 30 percent of the electorate – at 9,400 polling stations across the country, largely because voters were not given enough time to familiarize themselves with the draft document. The referendum was called for March 16 in mid-February.
The proposed constitution sets up the first Constitutional Court on citizens' grievances and a Peace and Reconciliation Commission to investigate political violence and human rights abuses blamed mainly on Mugabe's ZANU-PF party over the past decade of troubled polling and alleged vote-rigging.
All main political parties called for a `Yes' vote in the referendum. A reformed constitution was a key demand of regional leaders who formed Zimbabwe's shaky and acrimonious coalition government between Mugabe and Tsvangirai after the last violent and disputed polls in 2008.