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Tsvangirai's Lawyer Meets His Own Fate

Eric Matinenga in a holding cell in Rusape, Zimbabwe.

When I was imprisoned in Zimbabwe two years ago while writing my undergraduate thesis, advocate Eric Matinenga refused to bribe local officials to secure my release.

"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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Comments (31)



This is all terrible, but what is it compared to Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan day by day? Nothing to write home about.


More people will die from the collapse of Zimbabwe than from all unnatural causes in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. One third of the population of Zimbabwe has fled the country. People are starving there and the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy has brought hunger to all the surrounding countries that previously depended on food imports from Zimbabwe. We don't hear about it in the West because unlike Iraq and Afghanistan the press is barred from reporting in Zimbabwe. The number of people denied their basic rights in Zimbabwe is many orders of magnitude greater than those housed in Guantanamo. Your need to hate the West / The United States can't change these basic facts.


SOMALI's comments remind me a lot of an email solicitation I keep getting which suggests that a regional bank manager who oversees my long- lost cousin's $3 million last will and testament is just waiting to send me the money and all I needed to do was to put down a $1,200 deposit in escrow.


USING all-CAPS in strange places in prose doesn't MAKE your post more CONVINCING!!!!


It is just AMAZING!!


I am not accusing this author of lying. NO. I am accusing the so-called "ïnternational community", which in reality is America, Britain and Israel, the three countries that are MOST responsible for the INSTABILITY BLOTTING many counrtiries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America today.

this "community" of War-mongering countries want to LIE to us that Robert Mugabe, God Bless him, is the "WORST BAD MAN" in Africa currently. That's a HUGE LIE!!!!!!

The worst "War Criminal" in Africa currently is MELES ZENAWI, who on the orders of America and Britain and Israel, is mass murdering Somalis currently in Mogadishu. Zenawi is ALSO mass Murdering his own people. using the worst tactics of war fare, (SCORCHED EARTH) to kill HIS OWN people in OGADENIA and Somalis of Mogadishu!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This mass MURDER and GENOCIDE FUELLED by the "international community" is the worst in AFRICA currently. Zimbabwe doesn't even come CLOSE to what's happening in Ogadenia, where whole towns and villages have been razed to the ground, TENS of THOUSANDS of women, children and the infirm mass murdered and RAPED.

The Terrorists from Ethiopia hang women they rape, after slitting their throats, from TREEs to TERORIZE the rest of the population. And War Criminal and MASS MURDERER Meles ZEnawi is DOING THIS WITH THE BLESSING OF THe "international community". It sickens me to the core to even think about this!!!!!!

And MONEY from AMERICA and BRITAIN is being USED to do this!!!!!!!!!!

There IS NO "HUMNATARIAN CRISIS" in Somalia. NOOOOOOOOOOOO. It is a HOLOCAUST, a gift from the so-called "international community" to Somalis.

And then you, "ïnternational community" DARE TALK to us about ZIMBABWE???????

Sickening and disgusting!!!!


Forgot to mention that Gani Fawehinmi is a lawyer like Eric Matinenga. Hence the similar story of standing up to the dictator and living to tell the story.

May Mugabe have a taste of 'the coup from heaven' that saved Nigeria from Abacha when the West and other African countries did no more than talking...just as they are doing now.


Mugabe will not walk away from the chaos he has orchestrated. Any wishful thinking in that direction is just what it is. Sad to say, but Eric Matinenga should take solace in the stories of people like Gani Fawehinmi who stood up to tyrants before. He's still alive!
The solution to resolving the Zimbabwe crisis might lie in an Abacha solution - he dies in a dodgy way with the 'help' of the people around him. Now is the time to seek out such people.
But like it happened in Nigeria, trust South Africa to do nothing. They didn't start talking until Saro Wiwa was hanged. The reason for this?
Abacha had something on the ANC, just like Mugabe might on Mbeki.
For more insight into this, Read: http://www.ever-fasternews.com/index.php?php_action=read_article&article_id=163

Anju Chandel:

Zimbabwe is not an isolated case of chronic anarchy to which the world has closed its eyes completely. Most of the African nations fall into this category where the international community has shown utter apathy and unwillingness to take any action against dictators and murderers.

But why blame only the rest of the world and expect it to interfere every time in that continent?

Where is the so-called African Union? When will it wake up? What is its purpose for existence? Why all other African countries - including Zimbabwe's neighbors - are not pressurizing Mugabe to relinquish his position to which he is clinging so tenaciously? Why is South Africa supporting that monster Mugabe?

And no need to even waste time on criticizing a bureaucratic behemoth like the UN which simply doesn't seem to be capable of doing anything anywhere in this world.

An example: the UN's inability to stop Robert Mugabe from delivering his venomous lecture at the recently concluded Rome Conference for Food Security, with the entire bunch of world leaders present there as deaf and dumb spectators.

This sad story will continue ...


I agree with O. Chinhamo's comments that there is no separation of powers in Zimbabwe. All those who are working in the judiciary, particularly the judges of the High Court and Supreme Court are nominated on political lines. The bench is packed. Adv. Matinenga must be released unconditionally.

O. Chinhamo:

The way Adv. Matinenga is being treated is deplorable. This is inhuman, cruel and degrading punishment at its best.

Zimbabwe no longer has a judiciary that is independent from the Executive.

It’s a big shame to Mugabe, ZANU PF and all those who are masquerading as independent and impartial magistrates and judges yet they are biased in favour of ZANU PF. A very sad situation.

Mohamed MALLECK,Swift Current, Canada:

Your focusing on one lawyer of integrity, however moving the tale is, while absolving the main would-be-beneficiary of regime cahnge for copping out, will always elicit the kind of response that you got from George manuelian : "They were so much better off under the whites".

In the early 1970's, I was always getting the same type of comment from certain Canadian -- Canadian, not even redneck American -- friends: "The Indians used to be so much better off under British rule".

Change is needed in Zimbabwe and fast! The SADC/AU/UN should have elections postponed for no more than six weeks and send in peace-keeping troops that will enforce law and order and supervise a free and fair post-poned elections, with the understanding that the results will be made to be respected, if necessary by military force.

Ar the same time, some kind of half-honourable exit for the not-too-overtly-blood-thirsty or kleptocratic memebers of Mugabe's coterie and himself should not be ruled out. A stable future for all Zimbabweans is far more important than revenge.

The latest news about ZANU-PF ranks being divided as rumours spead about splinter groups trying to negotiate some kind of amnesty for themselves are encouraging about the possibility of a negotiated solution.

What should be avoided at all cost is external direct intervention, especially military intervention.


For DE's comment: "Mugabe is proving all the racists correct, namely that blacks can't govern themselves and that they are essentially savages."

I rather draw the opposite conclusion, not that 'all black are savages' but that you can get horrible people in any color. People are people, when you bend over backwards for dictators sometimes you get what you deserve. I feel it is as bad for the rest of the world to turn a blind eye towards atrocities, like this, as to worry about being on the right side of polite racial politics. I mean colonialism was bad but many of the worst abuses of colonialism ended 40 years ago, this is happening now. We have a tendency to get so caught up in our past mistakes that we cannot recognize that things are not over yet.

I am really sorry to hear about Eric Matinenga, he sounded like a phenomenal person. I don't know much about him but hope he gets out ok. :(


This is nothing new for Africa. Let's be real this pattern has repeated itself numerous times all across Africa Idi Amin, Samuel Doe, Bokassa, Mobutu Sese Seko, Mengistu Haile Mariam, (isnt he in exile in Zimbabew?!) Need i go on?!!! Lets face the horrble truth: African leaders including those in South Africa today have shown their true colours and cowardice by sacrificing our brothers in Zimbabwe to the tyrant Mugabe. The African Union is a crying joke! They remain as powerless and effete in Somalia and Darfur as will be in Zimbabwe. As an African, I can safely bet that whatever solution comes up will not be from the efforts of the African Union or Thabo Mbeki but from the Zimbabweans themslves. My brothers, SAVE YOURSELVES.....

James Sithole:

I do agree with Robert Oats' comment regarding the critical brutality perpetrated by Mugabe and his henchmen and quoting from his statement when he said,"The British Government turned a blind eye to his thuggery in 1980" is a reality.Mugabe should not have received any accolades as a liberator which have made him think he's invincible.
The astonishing questions which remain unanswered are how has this evil tyrant dictator managed to evade crimes against humanity for so long?What about the genocide in Matebeleland?So how long will Mugabe continue being an outlaw? How come intervations occurred to unlawful regimes like Afghanistan and Iraq. Zimbabwe's regime continue rulling with impunity.

Mugabe should be stripped from immunity which he is abusing to torture,murder,faulse imprisionment of political opponents gerrymandering can be halted.This man has no respect of the judiciary the constitution and the law,he defies the UN, redicules the international community who have tried to negotiate through dialogue to make him see sense.So how long should he go on killing like a wild dog? Maybe he will be judged after his obituary.


Gavin, it isn't easy. Fighting for freedom is one of the hardest and most dangerous activities anyone can do. That is why successful revolutions always come with a list of martyrs -- people who gave their lives to secure freedom for everyone else. If the vast majority of Zimbabwe's people could unite and take up arms, they could force Mugube out of power. Unfortunatly, they would first have to be united and led by someone willing to stand up and call for that action, and he would be the first person Mugube and his supporters tried to kill. This is why so many dictatorships can thrive for a while. He will be overthrown when conditions have become so bad that people would rather die than continue to live under them. From what I am hearing, they are not there yet. True democracies spring from the people themselves, they cannot be enforced from outside. And the people have to be willing to die for their freedom. That has always been the cost of liberty. As Jeremy was saying, the Tree of Liberty is watered by the blood of patriots.

Thomas Tirivangani:

We all know the brutality and genocide at home, in Zimbabwe. I think what is critical now is for Zimbabweans in the diaspora to form caucuses whereever they are to brainstom what course of ACTION the citizens of Zimbabwe in the diaspora can take to help contribute in ending the Mugabe regime. We can use our contacts ,and whatever leverage we may have in the diaspora to ensure that Mugabe and his cohorts cannot continue to hold the nation hostage. A lot of Zimbabweans hold strategic positions and have strategic patnerships across the world, we need to use those leverages to build synergies that will help us rid Zimbabwe of this evil dictatorship. I urge you fellow Zimbabweans and our friends across the world to share your thoughts with us on what ACTION we need to take.At the moment we are busy mobillising Zimbabweans for collective ACTION. In the meantime, reach us with your thoughts on what ACTION can be taken now on this email, fitzgerald.watson@yahoo.ca


It is awfull when the innocent people of the nation whom are poerles unable to protect themself from evil leaders who kills his own children and the world just watch and see. why we have the United Nations for whtat?
Please help help people of Simbawe, arrest Robert Mugabe and sent ot world Court for ginocidal against huminity.


This is all terrible, but what is it compared to Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan day by day? Nothing to write home about.

varaidzo :

it just pains me that for a few individuals who are strggling to protect their selfish interests alot of people are losing their precious lives .God is watching

Mandla Ncube:

The struggle continues - what we have seen and are seeing in Zimbabwe is the end of all the suffering that we have incurred as a people of this country. we are very much behind Morgan Tsvangirai and as artists we have begun to write and come up with ideas of songs of praise to our new president, poems of praise and docu-dramas to tell a story of a true hero who has set us free from the Mugabe regime.


Isnt it just beutiful that u sit in your nice plush offices in New York, Washington, London and even Beijing and give all these renditions of how sad it is now in Zimbabwe.

Insurgency? U can come and we do it together then if its that easy.

John Bango:

It is truly sad that our country continues to be dragged down by the small percentage of the population with access to government resources.

It is also so sad that the regime is fully confirming the fact that as Africans, we do not love each other and we spend so much ernegy fighting each other.

Why can we not spend our ernegies supporting each other and building the nation!!




The history of aid has been dismal, and resource exploitation has cursed the population.


Why no insurgency? Those who tolerate such abuse are partly guilty for it. If they want the oppressions to end, they should rise up and start targeting these ZANU thugs for assassination. If they wish to take this election "into the bush", then that is where they would find me. Tree of Liberty...Blood of Patriots.


It is truly unfortunate that this happens and it will not help Mugabe. Mugabe is proving all the racists correct, namely that blacks can't govern themselves and that they are essentially savages.
One bad apple ruins the whole cart. Zimbabwe and its people deserve better. Appalling that this can occur for so many years. There is no justice jere. No virtue here. Evil wins sometimes and it has won handily here.

Rodrick Mukumbira:

I am disheartened. What has become of my country? Never thought that Mugabe would go that far. He has betrayed us. We are now a country of barbarics and cowards, who should always watch their backs

Robert Oats :

You see all the above, wringing their hands in anguish about the evils perpetrated by the excesses of Mugabe and his henchmen. Yet you forget that many in the West sanctioned his behaviour during his "liberation struggle". He was glorified as the liberator of his people; the noble "freedom fighter" casting off the yolk of colonial tyranny.

I was in the Health Services of the then Rhodesia and saw the brutality of this man first hand. Whole villages burnt to the ground with their inhabitants inside. Women forced to behead their husbands. Men and women who had their fingers, lips and genitals ripped off with pliers. All this because they refused to be part of the "liberation war". Two civilian airliners shot down with SAM's and in one case the survivors gunned down in cold blood. My father's secretary was on the second aircraft. Does any of this barbaric behaviour remind you of anything?

Terrorists are terrorists and when you sanction their behaviour in one environment you sanction that behaviour forever. The British Government turned a blind eye to his thuggery in 1980. It was recorded by numbers of British Army Officers in the field but ignored by Lord Soames.

Sadly the damage done is so serious that it is difficult to see anything positive happening there for decades.


Thabo Mbeki is bringing disgrace to South Africa by propping up Mugabe. Almost nobody in SA supports Mbeki's position on Zimbabwe.

SA should be a guiding light to the whole SADC, as it was under Mandela. But that will never happen while Mbeki is in office.

Voters of SA, members of the ANC, please somehow get rid of this embarrassing, stupid, blind little man Mbeki before he shames SA further.

Marguerite, NYC:

I am grief stricken, that yet another African country is eating itself alive. The entire international community needs to keep the pressure on S. Africa's Mebeki!

tendayi chiro:

Sobering reality............this was once my beautifull country.

Mark Ellis, Executive Director, International Bar Association:

The current decimation of Zimbabwe’s judiciary is not new. Starting in 2000, there was growing evidence about the erosion of the rule of law in Zimbabwe because of lawlessness in the country and the flagrant intimidation of the judges by Mugabe’s government.

State sponsored campaigns against judges in Zimbabwe have been a mainstay of Mugabe’s policies. The campaigns have been unrelenting and vicious, including acts of violence and intimidation against judges. The result has been the breakdown of Zimbabwe’s constitutional order and the rule of law.

Decisions by those few brave and independent minded judges who still make rulings against Mugabe’s regime are blatantly ignored by the government. The judges themselves, like Eric Matinenga, are then persecuted by Mugabe’s regime.


It's in the hands of Zimbabwe's neighbours now. There's very little that any non-African nation can do about the situation beyond what they are already doing. I'm not very optimistic.

Arnold Tsunga Director Africa Programme, International Commission of Jurists:

Since about 2002 when Mugabe started packing the Judiciary with politically complaint judges, the judiciary in Zimbabwe has been a source of great embarrassment to the legal profession. It has failed to serve its function of checks and balances as well as it should have. It has failed to be the guarantor of fundamental rights and freedoms as it is supposed to do. It has failed to play a significant role in dealing with impunity and the government excesses that have resulted in serious widespread violations of peoples' rights.

It has failed to guarantee the right to private property and allowed destructive policy of expropriations that has driven away both domestic and international investors. Of grave concern is that some of the judges have in fact competed with politicians in expropriating peoples' assets like land. They access scarce resources such as foreign currency and fuel in a non-transparent manner.

The judiciary has failed to protect Zimbabwe's democracy and peoples' effective participation in national affairs by enforcing and failing to strike down repressive legislation which takes away peoples rights to freedom of expression, association, movement and assembly. It has failed to stop the abuse of the law by state agents to harass human rights defenders and legitimate political opponents and in the process subverted justice.

This explains why such respectable figures and court officers as Advocate Eric Matinenga and Tendai Biti find themselves languishing in jail as essentially prisoners of conscience. It has failed to show strong displeasure when its strong displeasure when its rulings are defied or when some members of the judiciary are attacked by government agents or militias.

A significant portion of the blame in the current prevailing climate of impunity in Zimbabwe should be taken by the judiciary as it has not done enough to foster a culture of respect for the rule of law.

Eric Matinenga is easily the most outstanding advocate that Zimbabwe has. He is a source of great inspiration to his colleagues in the legal profession and epitomizes what lawyers should aspire to be in terms of case management and courtroom skills. That the courts themselves have no failed to render him justice comes as an immense contradiction and irony. It shows that the Mugabe regime has now almost completely overturned the rule of law and created a real possibility of the country sinking into anarchy. The African Union and the Southern African Leaders have a big responsibility on their shoulders to ensure that the will of the people in Zimbabwe as expressed on 29 March 2008 is respected.

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