HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe’s electoral body said Tuesday that 94.5 per cent of voters cast a ballot in favour of a new constitution that calls for a strengthening of human rights and a curb on presidential powers after a decade of political and economic turmoil in the southern African nation.
But as the results were announced African and international law organizations expressed outrage at the jailing for a third night of prominent rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa on charges that she allegedly obstructed justice.
“Her arrest is not just an attack on her profession but on the people of Zimbabwe who have just voted yes to a new constitution that enshrines fundamental human rights,” said her lawyer, Thabani Mpofu.
A new constitution was a key demand of regional mediators who forged a shaky and acrimonious coalition between Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and the former opposition leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, after the last violent and disputed national polls in 2008.
All main political parties had called for a “Yes” vote in the referendum.
Judge Rita Makarau, head of the state electoral commission, said Tuesday that just over 3 million Zimbabweans voted for the draft constitution and 170,489 voted against. Spoiled ballot papers were not factored in to the final results of votes cast by less than 50 per cent of those eligible to vote in the referendum.
The 170-page draft constitution has now to be submitted to the Zimbabwe parliament for approval, a procedural formality, before President Mugabe is asked to sign it into law.
The draft limits the future presidential office to two five-year terms, a clause that is not retrospective. Mugabe, 89, who led the nation to independence in 1980, can rule for another two terms if his party wins upcoming five-yearly parliamentary and presidential polls.
The proposed constitution sets up the first constitutional Court on citizens’ grievances and a Peace and Reconciliation Commission to investigate political violence and human rights abuses blamed mainly on Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party over the past decade of troubled polling and alleged vote-rigging.
Regional observers of Saturday’s referendum said voting was free of violence except for minor scuffles between rival youth groups. The outcome of voting was seen as “credible” and reflecting the free will of electors.
But independent local monitoring groups reported that Mugabe party loyalists had taken down the names of voters emerging from some polling stations, a possible ploy used to threaten them in the crucial full scale elections.
Human rights groups say the new constitution does not immediately scrap sweeping media and security laws enforced by state institutions loyal to Mugabe, and that can only be done by a the next elected parliament.
The independent Research and Advocacy Unit said in its latest bulletin that reforms proposed in the new constitution “will clearly take a much more energetic parliament than the one we have currently” if they are to be implemented. The group said, “Constitutions are not the panacea for all ills.”
The continued jailing of rights lawyer Mtetwa highlights how Mugabe’s police and judicial system needs thorough reform, said lawyers.
Police brought her to court Tuesday after ignoring a judge’s order to release her Monday.
Mtetwa, arrested Sunday while representing four officials of the prime minister’s party who were being searched by police, arrived at the Harare magistrate’s court in an open-back police truck. She greeted colleagues and activists with a spirited wave but was not allowed to speak to reporters.
Mtetwa’s arrest was a ploy to stop her from defending officials of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party, her attorney argued in court Tuesday.
State prosecutors objected to bail for Mtetwa and the four MDC officials and court was adjourned to Wednesday.
Mtetwa was abused by the police in “the high-handed manner in which they treated her by handcuffing her and throwing her into the back of an open truck as if she was a threat to police and national security,” said her lawyer, Mpofu.
While in custody, police confiscated her mobile phone and went through it in breach of norms of attorney-client confidentiality, he said. He said when locked in a cell two male police officers at around midnight even tried to remove prison-issue blankets from her.
To the charge she shouted at police officers and attempted to prevent them from doing their duty, Mtetwa, in her written testimony, said she told the police she wanted to see their search warrants but was ignored.
“What you are doing is unlawful, unconstitutional and undemocratic,” she told the officers, Mpofu said.
The police response was to arrest her, he said.
The refusal of police to obey a court order to release Mtetwa showed that Zimbabwe “is a state that is prepared to act like an outlaw,” Mpofu told the court.
Obstructing justice carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
Mtetwa has represented Tsvangirai and several of his top aides in past cases brought against them. She has also defended human rights defenders and journalists. She holds an array of international awards, including those from the American Bar Association and the main European Bar Human Rights body.