When Zimbabweans voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new constitution earlier this month, they approved a document that envisioned a new future for their country, scaling up human rights and dialing back presidential power.
But the referendum and its aftermath also underscored a perennial truth of Zimbabwean politics: the country's laws often come second to its leaders.
In the days immediately following the vote, police arrested a string of political leaders and human rights activists critical of President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU PF party. That has sparked concern that the country is sliding back toward the political violence that characterized its last presidential election, in 2008, which saw the killing of some 200 opposition supporters.
Among those arrested in recent days was internationally-lauded human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who spent the week following the referendum in jail on charges of obstructing justice before being granted bail on March 25.
She was taken into custody March 17 while attempting to intervene in the arrest of a client, Thabani Mpofu, a critic of the Mugabe regime charged with impersonating a police officer. (For his part, Mr. Mpofu says he was gathering information on government corruption).
Mpofu and three others arrested that day were high-level staff members with the MDC or Movement for Democratic Change. The MDC is the former opposition party led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai that is now engaged in a tense power-sharing agreement with Mugabe and ZANU PF.
Mtetwa’s detention prompted outcry from African and international legal groups, who demanded her immediate release. Leaving jail Monday, she told journalists her seven-day ordeal was “a personal attack on all human rights lawyers.”
The arrests of Mtetwa and the MDC staffers came immediately after voters passed the draft constitution on March 16 in a process that was described as peaceful by both Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai.
The constitution paves way for elections later this year and will limit future presidents to just two five-year terms – a far cry from the 33 years and counting that Mugabe has spent in power since Zimbabwe's transition to majority rule in 1980.
In an editorial on March 23 the country's largest daily newspaper, NewsDay, squarely blamed Mugabe's party for the worsening situation in the troubled southern African nation, citing the jailing of Mtetwa and others as “a clear violation of human rights couched in blatant disregard of the law" showing "indisputable disregard towards constitutionalism."
"We have a police force that operates outside the realms of the country’s constitution, getting away with it in broad daylight," the paper wrote. "With this kind of misbehavior, we can foretell that even if the new constitution emanating from the referendum is adopted, nothing will change.”
Commenting on the political situation in the country, Tsvangirai’s spokesman, Luke Tamborinyoka, blamed Mugabe's ZANU PF.
“The events taking place in the country are a desperate attempt by ZANU PF to divert attention from key issues," he says. "As MDC and part of the government, we will remain focused. The agenda is to instill fear in people ahead of elections, but we have survived that before. We are aware that the leopard will not change its spots, but we will continue to engage SADC [Southern African Development Community] and AU [African Union] as guarantors of the global political agreement so that they take charge ... to ensure free and fair elections.”
In the recent past, the MDC has accused ZANU PF of being involved in a spate of violence gripping the country, including the mysterious death of 12 year-old Christpower Maisiri, the son of an MDC supporter, who was killed in an arson attack in Headlands, about 90 miles east of Harare.
ZANU PF has denied any wrongdoing in that case and the police say they are still investigating. Contacted for a comment, ZANU PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo said he was not in a position to comment since the matter was still under investigation by the police.
Several civic organizations’ offices have been ransacked by the police in search of “subversive materials,” including the country’s biggest election watchdog, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN). The national director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Okay Machisa, spent two weeks in custody in January after he was charged of conspiracy to commit fraud, forgery, and publishing falsehoods, before being released on bail.
Tsvangirai has described the situation as “deteriorating” and has threatened his party will not take part in the next elections if the AU and SADC do not intervene.
The Monitor’s correspondent in Harare cannot be named for security reasons.