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Rights watchdogs condemn embarrassment of lawyers



GLOBAL legal watchdogs, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and Lawyers for Lawyers (L4L), have urged the government of Zimbabwe to urgently investigate the abuse of lawyers by police, following the intimidation of lawyer Harrison Nkomo (pictured) while representing opposition politician Job Sikhala earlier this year.


In January, Nkomo, a senior lawyer with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), was reportedly denied entry to a courtroom at the Harare magistrates’ court by police officers while waiting for the trial of his client, Sikhala, a former Zengeza West legislator.

Sikhala, who was accused of inciting public violence and communicating falsehoods has since been sentenced to a two-year non-custodial sentence for the first charge and fined US$500 in addition to a nine-month suspended prison sentence for the second charge.

He spent 595 days in pre-trial detention following his arrest in June 2022 on charges of inciting violence at the funeral of slain Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) activist Moreblessing Ali.

However, police at Harare magistrates’ court pointed a firearm at Nkomo despite his having identified himself as a lawyer, leading to protest by Sikhala’s other lawyer, Jeremiah Bamu.
Magistrate Tafadzwa Miti ordered the prosecution to investigate the incident and submit a report to the court. Following a lengthy delay, Nkomo was allowed entry into the court to represent Sikhala.

IBAHRI said the government should urgently initiate an investigation into the harassment of Nkomo.

“The government should promptly and adequately investigate the harassment and hindrance of Mr Nkomo to ensure accountability for police abuses perpetrated against lawyers; immediately take action to ensure the safety and physical integrity of Mr Nkomo, including the provision of effective protection measures to guarantee that lawyers are able to carry their legitimate professional activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions,” IBAHRI said in a statement this week.

“The government should refrain from actions that may constitute harassment, persecution, or undue interference in the work of lawyers in Zimbabwe, including their criminal prosecution on improper grounds such as the nature of cases in which the lawyer is involved.

“The IBAHRI and L4L reminds the Zimbabwean authorities that independent lawyers have a critical role to play in the protection of the rule of law and human rights in a country and should be able to carry out their professional duties in a free and secure environment.”
IBAHRI said the harassment of legal practitioners is against international law.

“Notably, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, have expressed ‘alarm’ regarding the pattern of abuses and threats against lawyers and human rights defenders in the context of elections,” reads the statement.

“Furthermore, lawyers should not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes. In this respect, we draw your attention to the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role ofLawyers, in particular to Articles 16, 17 and 23, which read: Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference; […] and (c) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic, or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards, and ethics.”

Harrassment of lawyers has been on the rise since the disputed general elections won by Zanu PF, with an increase in the harassment of human rights attorneys.

In November, a civil society organisation, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, updated the 77th African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Session (ACHPR) on the worsening post-election human rights crisis, urging it to exert pressure on the Harare government to investigate post-election violence, including that on legal practitioners.

This came after the controversial arrest of ZLHR lawyers Doug Coltart and Tapiwa Muchineripi who were accused of blocking police from questioning their clients, Womberaishe Nhende and Sanele Mkhuhlani, who are members of the Citizens’ Coalition for Change.

According to the statements of Nhende and Mkhuhlani, they were hospitalised after being abducted and tortured by state agents in the capital Harare.

On 26 January 2024, the National Prosecuting Authority withdrew the charges against Coltart and Muchineripi, due to lack of evidence to sustain the prosecution.

“Although the ZNPA’s decision is welcomed by the IBAHRI and L4L, concern remains about the ongoing pressure on Zimbabwe’s legal profession, as evidenced most recently by the intimidation and harassment of human rights lawyer Harrison Nkomo,” IBAHRI said.

In July, another human rights lawyer, Obey Shava, was attacked by four identified men ahead of the polls, raising an outcry from human rights organisations. 

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