"I am a lawyer. My tools are the law,” Mr. Matinenga said. “If one bypasses the law, there will never be justice here.”
Then this bald, bespectacled lawyer entered Harare’s sprawling courthouse and, with relentless focus and wit, successfully argued for my release.
As Mr. Matinenga led me out of the crowded, subterranean cell in which I had lived for one week, he said, “The courts are the last hope here.”
Mr. Matinenga has spent his life working within Zimbabwe’s legal system, most notably defending Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai against treason charges.
Throughout his career, the courts provided hope against a repressive state. A few independent magistrates fought for their profession in a country where most other state institutions - from the military to the media - were simply extensions of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), run by longtime President Robert Mugabe.
But today, at the greatest crisis moment in Zimbabwe’s history of crises, the courts have been entirely commandeered by ZANU-PF. And the fate of Mr. Matinenga, a man who devoted his life to ensuring the court’s impartiality, is growing increasingly tied to the fate of his nation.
Mr. Matinenga now sits behind bars in a cold, cramped cell without his glasses, shoes or socks. His gray suit has been replaced with a tattered beige prison uniform (the photo above is of him in holding, before changing clothes). His family worries it’s not enough to keep him warm. They are just thankful he has not been tortured.
At Rusape Prison where Mr. Matinenga is held, the wardens do not feed their prisoners. This is common. There is no money.
To feed him, Mr. Matinenga’s relatives travel a two-hundred mile round trip almost daily from their home in the capital city of Harare to the small town of Rusape, where he is held. (This despite the country being in the midst of a fuel crisis.) Mr. Matinenga’s family carries more food than he needs, so that he can share it with the many other inmates whose families don’t know where they are, or cannot help anyway.
The situation in this jail, and across the country, is dire. Waves of state-sponsored violence came in the weeks after March 29th, 2008, when Tsvangirai defeated President Robert Mugabe in the presidential elections. However, according to official results (which MDC disputes), Tsvangirai did not win over 50% of the vote, which would have allowed him to avoid a runoff.
So that runoff was scheduled for Friday, June 27th, 2008, providing ZANU-PF and its supporters twelve weeks to terrorize the opposition. Since the first vote, the ruling party and its militarized lackeys have withheld food, tortured MDC members, and intimidated whole villages.
The ruling party’s message, from Robert Mugabe’s speeches on down, has been very clear: Vote ZANU-PF or your government will wage war on you.
That is why MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai says he is not contesting the runoff vote scheduled for the end of the week. “We in the MDC cannot ask them [Zimbabweans] to cast their vote on June 27 when that vote could cost them their lives."
In March, voters from Manicaland province swung away from ZANU-PF toward the MDC; soon afterwards the military moved in, unleashing reprisals and mass intimidation.
Frightened residents turned to Mr. Matinenga -- the newly elected Member of Parliament from the area, and a man known for working within the system against injustice -- for help.
According to reports from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the International Bar Association, Mr. Matinenga had previously sued the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) amid allegations that they were torturing and arresting MDC supporters in his home district of Buhera, within Manicaland Province. In court, he won an important court order mandating the ZDF lay off MDC supporters.
But when Mr. Matinenga went to deliver his court order to the military in Buhera, and visit his constituents in jail, the local police took Mr. Matinenga into custody. They accused him of election-related violence.
There was no evidence against Mr. Matinenga, and, at first, magistrates from the High Court demanded his release. But senior members of the military vowed to keep Mr. Matinenga in jail, and so far have succeeded. Court dates keep getting pushed back as the system stalls and magistrates run from his case, afraid of facing a similar fate if they rule in his favor.
A few brave lawyers remain in Zimbabwe, fighting for Mr. Matinenga and others. But they are also being locked up, beaten or worse.
So, as Arnold Tsunga, Director of Africa Program for the International Commission of Jurists, puts it bluntly: After six years of intimidation, “the judiciary has failed…the Mugabe regime has now almost completely overturned the rule of law and created a real possibility of the country sinking into anarchy.”
Mr. Matinenga, denied bail, awaits trial. It is set to begin on Wednesday, June 26th. If he loses, he could face an indefinite number of years in jail.
Morgan Tsvangirai is leaving the presidential contest. This ensures that Mr. Mugabe can’t win another rigged election over Tsvangirai and then relax his grip until the next vote, as he has done before. And it ensures that Tsvangirai can’t claim the presidency in the coming week. Either case could have helped speed Mr. Matinenga's release.
A period of sustained pressure on Mr. Mugabe may well follow, ideally led by southern African nations. This, too, could well leave Mr. Matinenga languishing in jail.
The international community must demand that Mr. Mugabe and his supporters respect the basic foundation of society – its own law. If President Mugabe and ZANU-PF continue to trample on the courts, this “last hope” will soon vanish entirely -- and when Eric Matinenga eventually gets out of jail, there will be no system left for him to work within.
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