FIVE prominent Bulawayo lawyers have withdrawn their membership of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights in protest after the organisation refused to take up the cases of three Mthwakazi Liberation Front (MLF) officials charged with treason.
The donor-funded ZLHR has a fund used to pay for legal representation of “human rights defenders” who are “arrested, detained or otherwise impeded by state agents in the exercise of their human or constitutional rights”.
But the organisation has refused to take up the case of Paul Siwela, John Gazi and Charles Thomas whose organisation advocates a separate Ndebele state, claiming they are “advocating for violence and hate speech and for that reason do not fall within the definition of human rights defenders”.
The trio were arrested on March 3 and charged with treason for allegedly distributing pamphlets and planning the overthrow of President Robert Mugabe’s government.
They face the death penalty if convicted.
But the five lawyers -- Advocate Lucas Nkomo, Robert Ndlovu, Sindiso Mazibisa, Kucaca Ivumile Phulu and Matshobana Ncube – accuse the ZLHR of using a different standard than the one applied in similar cases elsewhere.
In a letter to the ZLHR, Phulu drew comparisons with the cases of the International Socialist Organisation's Zimbabwe coordinator Munyaradzi Gwisai and five others recently charged with treason and two other treason cases involving the former Chimanimani MP Roy Bennett and arms dealer Peter Hitchmann.
Said Phulu: “The ZLHR updates indicate that Gwisai and five others have been charged with treason for seeking to ‘violently overthrow the government’. We know it is a lie by the state, so they get representation by ZLHR. But there is no indaba to say that ‘the International Socialist Organisation has once circulated articles advocating for jambanja so they are not human rights defenders’.
“ZLHR has represented Hitchmann and Bennett when they were being charged with seeking to subvert a constitutional government and were alleged to have arms. ZLHR was quite ready to say the arms were planted and it was not true that they advocated violent means to overthrow the government. We said that they were innocent until proven guilty.”
Phulu said while he found the Mthwakazi Liberation Front’s views “repugnant” and “vehemently disagreed” with them, “this should not influence me as a human rights lawyer when their case, which is on all fours with all other cases, is presented to me to defend.”
The break-away lawyers have now formed the Bammeli Human Rights Lawyers’ Network to take up the case of the trio, and another involving MDC-T MP for Pelandaba Samuel Sandla Khumalo who is charged with possession of marijuana for no fee, said Mazibisa.
“It is saddening that those charged with the mandate to represent human rights defenders do so in a selective way. This is exemplified by the fact that in all their news alerts, ZLHR makes reference to one treason case i.e the State v Gwisai and others, despite the fact that they know full well that the MLF people are charged with treason as well,” Mazibisa said in a statement.
“Abammeli feels that ZLHR were in error in this case and a judgement was made before seeking to hear the accused’s side of the case. The right to self determination is a right like any other and is recognised by international law, a group of people are allowed to pursue it without being constrained by unjust laws or trumped up charges as is the case in this matter.”
The five said they had “the commitment of more than 40 lawyers” to join their network, “undertaking to commit and dedicate their time and efforts to the representation of human rights defenders”.