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October 17, 2023

Legal Analysis: Arrest of Prominent Human Rights Lawyers in Zimbabwe

Executive Summary

Doug Coltart and Tapiwa Muchineripi are prominent Zimbabwean human rights lawyers who have represented numerous human rights defenders, members of the main opposition party, and independent political leaders.[1] On September 4, Mr. Coltart and Mr. Muchineripi were arrested in the course of representation of their clients, two members of the opposition party Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC), who were recovering in the hospital from suspected kidnapping and torture by unknown actors. Mr. Coltart and Mr. Muchineripi were arrested for advising police detectives —who were investigating a complaint related to their clients’ kidnapping— that their clients were in a poor state of health and should not be interviewed. Mr. Coltart and Mr. Muchineripi were advised that they had committed the offense of obstruction of justice and were taken into custody, where they stayed overnight. They were charged in court, the next day, with obstruction of justice as defined in section 184(1)(e) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act [Chapter 9:23] and were released on bail.

This report examines this case in relation to the law applicable to the charge, international standards relating to the rights of victims of violent crimes and torture, and the rights and independence of lawyers. The report demonstrates that the police detectives did not meet the requirements of the law applicable to the charge in their arrest; namely, that there could not have been a reasonable suspicion that Mr. Coltart and Mr. Muchineripi defeated or obstructed the police investigation relating to the kidnapping of their clients, nor that they had the intention to do so, both required elements of the alleged offense. Secondly, Zimbabwe is bound by international, regional, and domestic obligations to protect the independence of the legal profession, allowing lawyers to represent their clients without fear of retaliation or interference. Lastly, victims of violent crimes and torture have rights to the protection of their dignity, to be free from intimidation and abuse, and to be given access to health and legal assistance. Mr. Coltart and Mr. Muchineripi were representing their clients who were victims of torture and kidnapping; victims are not obligated to participate in investigations related to the crime both under Zimbabwe’s domestic and international obligations.  

[1] Mr. Coltart and Mr. Muchineripi have represented many other human rights defenders, including Hopewell Chin’ono, Jeffrey Moyo, Obert Masaraure and several Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) activists.

Read the full report here

Disclaimer: This report was prepared by staff and consultants of the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights and reflects their own views. It has not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, therefore, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association as a whole. Further, nothing in this report should be considered as legal advice in a specific case.