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Zimbabwe court begins trial of human rights lawyer

A Zimbabwe court on Monday began the trial of Beatrice Mtetwa, a prominent human rights lawyer charged with obstruction of justice and unruly behavior towards police forces. Mtetwa was arrested in March [JURIST report] for allegedly interfering with a police search of her clients' office, but she contends that she was only asking the officers to produce a valid warrant. The arrest came just a day after the country voted in a constitutional referendum to increase protections against human rights violations. Human rights organizations including Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] immediately called the arrest unlawful [press release]. The court later denied bail [JURIST report] to Mtetwa after prosecutors argued that she may be a flight risk because she is a citizen of Swaziland. However, Zimbabwe's High Court ordered her immediate release [JURIST report] in March, ruling that Mtetwa was following professional legal procedures when she demanded to see a search warrant. Mtetwa has stated that she believes her arrest was part of a ploy [AP report] to intimidate human rights defenders prior to July elections.

Zimbabwe has previously been criticized for its failure to ensure compliance with international human rights standards. In February three UN independent human rights experts urged the government of Zimbabwe to respect international human rights [JURIST report] including privacy and freedom of association, in light of growing hostility toward civil society organizations. In the weeks leading up to the country's March 16 constitutional referendum [JURIST report], with a subsequent election to take place in July, "human rights experts have received increasing numbers of reports about acts of intimidation and harassment, physical violence and arrests against civil society actors, mostly working on human rights issues." In January Human Rights Watch said that the unity government, established in 2009 after the 2008 elections resulted in violence, had failed to take the necessary steps [JURIST report] to ensure "credible, free and fair elections."

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