. . . to continue human rights fight
ARRESTED for the fifth time in the line of duty, human rights lawyer Doug Coltart (pictured) says the arrest of lawyers points to a breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.
Coltart was arrested with fellow lawyer Tapiwa Muchineripi at a private hospital in Harare and charged with obstruction of justice when they told police to postpone their interrogation of abducted and tortured CCC official Womberaiishe Nhende and Sanele Mukhuhlani.
“The arrest of myself and Tapiwa Muchineripi is a direct attack on the legal profession and to our practise of law. Everything that we did was fully within the confines of the law and was in the discharge of our professional obligations. And for the police to arrest lawyers, particularly lawyers who are representing the interests of vulnerable people who have been the victims of torture in such a fashion, is very worrying indeed and it speaks to the breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe,” said Coltart.
Coltart has in the past been caught in the crossfire while representing his clients who the police would either want to interrogate or arrest.
In October 2022, he was arrested for allegedly having been part of a deal between his client, Hopewell Chin’ono and a businessman while his only involvement was representing the journalist.
In March 2020, he was arrested together with trade unionists for allegedly plotting to foment civil disobedience in the country after they were caught in possession of a book titled Pedagogy Of The Oppressed.
“This is the fifth time that I have been arrested in the line of duty on two of those occasions. I was also assaulted by the police; thankfully I wasn’t assaulted by the police on this occasion, but it is extremely unfortunate that the police fail often to recognise that there is a difference between a lawyer and a client and that it is unlawful for the police to associate the lawyer with the cause of their client,” said Coltart.
Despite the numerous arrests and detentions, Coltart has vowed to continue representing all those who would have their rights violated.
He said: “I try not to let it affect me. I think in some ways it can actually enhance the work that I do, to go through experiences like this, because it enables me to empathise more with my clients to know what they are going through. To know how important it is to fight for their liberty when they are behind bars because it is something that I have experienced.”
Coltart has done a sterling job representing journalists, trade unionists and human rights defenders.
His work earned him a nomination by the Law Society of Ireland and the bar of Ireland for the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe’s 2023 Human Rights Award.
His lawyer Jeremiah Bamu concurred with Coltart’s sentiment that the arrest was an attack on the legal profession.
“We basically placed before the court complaints that their arrest amounts to criminalisation of the exercise of their profession. They were in the course of carrying out their duties and all they did was to convey the advice that had been received from medical personnel about the medical condition of their clients,” said Bamu on the day that the duo appeared before the courts and were granted US$100 bail each after spending a night in the cells.
As a follow-up to the uproar by law bodies and civil society, police issued a warning to all lawyers.
“The Zimbabwe Republic Police reports that Douglas James Coltart (32) and Tapiwa Muchineripi (49) were arrested on 4th September 2023 for contravening section 184(1)(e) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act Chapter 9:23, defeating or obstructing course of justice. This is in relation to an ongoing investigation where a report was filed at ZRP Milton Park and the suspect stopped police officers from interviewing potential state witnesses. The police urges lawyers to assist and cooperate with investigations for the maintenance of law and order in the country to be done smoothly without any hindrance,” read the police statement released on 5 September 2023.
In January, a human rights lawyer was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after he allegedly jumped off a police truck when he had gone to represent his clients who had been arrested at a party meeting in Budiriro.
In March 2020, lawyer Patrick Tererai was arrested and detained overnight in Beitbridge for disorderly conduct after he had gone to represent his client.
In June 2020, constitutional lawyer Thabani Mpofu was arrested for allegedly drafting an affidavit for a non-existent person, which was widely dismissed as persecution for his alignment to opposition politics.
Coltart and Muchineripi arrest is a direct violation of article 16 of the United Nations basic principles on the role of lawyers which states that governments should ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.