HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's High Court on Monday freed on bail a top rights lawyer who had been held for eight days on allegations of obstructing the course of justice.
A visibly tired Beatrice Mtetwa walked from the court in the company of two colleagues and her lawyer after her release papers took several hours to complete. She told reporters outside the courthouse that her arrest was a ploy to intimidate human rights defenders ahead of elections scheduled around July.
"It is a personal attack on all human rights lawyers but I was just made the first example. There will be many more arrests to follow as we near elections," Mtetwa said. "The police were all out to get me. They wanted me to feel their might and power because I call myself a human rights lawyer and I felt it."
Mtetwa was arrested on March 17 along with four officials from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party. The officials are accused of illegally compiling information on high level corruption and are schedule to appeal for bail on Monday. Mtetwa was accused of shouting at police officers who were conducting a search at Tsvangirai's staff offices when she demanded to see a search warrant.
Mtetwa and the four officials deny any wrongdoing.
High Court Judge Joseph Musakwa ruled early Monday that Mtetwa was following professional legal procedures when she demanded to see a search warrant from police at the offices of the four officials.
"She was entitled to be appraised of the legality of the search," Musakwa said.
Critics have cited the arrests as the start of a fresh wave of political intimidation against opponents of President Robert Mugabe by loyalist police and judicial officials ahead of elections.
Regional mediators forged a coalition between Mugabe and Tsvangirai after the last disputed and violent elections in 2008.
Last week police ignored an earlier High Court order to free Mtetwa and on Wednesday the lower Harare magistrate's court ordered her held in custody to reappear in that court on April 3.
Charges of obstructing justice carry a maximum of two years imprisonment.
Mtetwa said she was not well-treated while in police custody. She wasn't allowed to take a bath and was denied access to her lawyers and family.
But she said she will not give up the fight for human rights.
"I will not be cowed, there has to be mutual respect between police and lawyers because we will all be doing our job," Mtetwa said.
The judge said Mtetwa should not have been denied bail because of her "professional standing." He said the police officers conducting the search could have "easily subdued her because she is a woman" if they felt she was hindering them from doing their job.
"She is a lawyer of many years, with a forceful, combative and at times aggressive personality but she remains professional and dignified" when doing her job, the judge said.
Mtetwa is a recipient of an array of awards from international jurists' groups including the American Bar Association over a distinguished career of three decades.
She has also defended journalists and human rights activists against prosecution by police and Mugabe loyalists in Zimbabwe's judiciary.
Since her March arrest the state media controlled by Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has criticized Judge Charles Hungwe, who issued the first order for Mtetwa's release. It said his actions pointed to the need for some judges to come under closer scrutiny over their rulings, and accused him of inefficiency and negligence in hearing other cases.
Mugabe's party claimed Hungwe illegally made the first ruling not in a court but at his private home during the night after her arrest without giving police the right to state their case against freeing her.
The state's Sunday Mail newspaper criticized lawyers who thought themselves "untouchable" and said Mtetwa's "stage-managed antics in and outside the courts" earned her "dubious awards" from African and international lawyers groups.