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November 7, 2008

The Warrior Lawyer

Q & A

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Law & Disorder
Human-rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was at a peaceful protest in her native Zimbabwe in 2007 when police grabbed her, threw her in a car, and then pounded her with batons by the roadside, while motorists stopped to gawk. Just a typical day for Mtetwa, who, in fact, had been protesting a police crackdown on lawyers at the time. She and her colleagues are regularly targeted for defending the rights of journalists and activists who spark the ire of dictator Robert Mugabe's minions. Mtetwa traveled to New York City recently to accept an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists and met with Marie Claire to discuss what drives her.

Q: What inspired you to take on a job like this?
I grew up in a very uneven society with a polygamous father, and I always thought there was a lot of injustice in the way things were done. For instance, when we were kids, my brother and cousin, who were both male, got bicycles to ride to school, but the girls in the family didn't. I was always questioning my father's authority - and always getting into trouble.

Q: Describe the government's issue with journalists.
Officials don't want journalists reporting on what's going on in Zimbabwe. The education system has collapsed. There's a cholera outbreak. There's no running water in the capital. People are dying from starvation. It's a humanitarian crisis.

Q: How have the police harassed you over the years?
Once, when I was the victim of an attempted carjacking, I called the police to report it; when they came, an officer recognized me and saw a chance to get revenge. He drove me around the city, beating me. My glasses were smashed into my face, literally. He said, "You represent all these 'opposition' people, and you say they get beaten up. So you should know what it feels like to be beaten yourself."

Q: But you remain undaunted?
If you encounter this kind of thing every day, as I do, it just becomes normal. In fact, I reported the police officer's assault. There has to be a proper record to prove, 10 years from now, that it happened.

Q: What can Marie Claire readers do to help?
Protest. Contact the embassy and say, "Restore freedom of expression in Zimbabwe. Restore basic rights." Just keep doing that - annoy them!

Q: You have an 18-year-old daughter. Does she want to follow in your footsteps?
She's thinking of doing law, but not my kind of law, not human rights. [laughs] She thinks she wants to be rich.

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