Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Kucaca Phulu on Mthwakazi Liberation Front

Following reports that the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) had refused to represent three officials from the Mthwakazi Liberation Front charged with treason, SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma speaks to Bulawayo lawyer and ZimRights chairman, Kucaca Phulu. He is one of 5 lawyers who objected to the decision and formed the Abammeli Lawyers for Human Rights group in protest. We also have a statement from Irene Petras, the Executive Director of ZLHR, on the matter.

Kucaca Phulu
Kucaca Phulu gives a press conference in Harare

Interview broadcast 21 March 2011

Lance Guma: Hello Zimbabwe and welcome to Behind the Headlines my guest this week is Bulawayo based lawyer and also chairman of ZimRights Kucaca Phulu. Mr. Phulu, thank you for joining us on the programme.

Kucaca Phulu: Well thank you, thank you Lance for inviting me to Behind the Headlines.

Guma: The reason why we have done this, the past few weeks have of course been dominated by the talk surrounding the Mthwakazi Liberation Front trio of Paul Siwela and his colleagues and subsequent reports that the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights had refused to represent them. Let’s go straight into this Mr. Phulu, what happened?

Phulu: Well Lance you see as these matters unfolded I was actually in Geneva. So I got an e-mail from my colleague saying, well look we are representing Paul Siwela and two others and in fact we did get in touch with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights through their representative in Bulawayo who had said to these lawyers, who obviously had been contacted because they are known to these individuals.

And Matshobana Ncube of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights contacted Lizwe Jamela who said, look we cannot represent these people because of what they stand for. One of the things they are said to stand for is, they want to chase all the Shona’s away from Bulawayo and the second thing is that they want to use violent means in order to divide the country.

So this is a matter which of course I was concerned about and then I said I said look I’m with Irene (Petras), I was with Irene in Geneva. So I raised the matter with them and they said are you talking about the guys who want to use violence and so forth and therefore do not fall within the definition of a human rights defender.

I was cautious enough to say look, I’m sure they don’t use violence and so forth but in any case those are not the charges that have been placed before the courts. The charges at the court do not say they are using violence and they did not say they want to chase away Shona’s from Matabeleland.

I double checked this with my colleagues who then wrote to me and in turn I wrote a letter to Irene and Rose putting the matter clearly saying look indeed they want to secede but they don’t want to it violently and they don’t want to chase all the Shona’s away. And in any case I did say we must not pre-judge the matter at least people must be given a right to be heard before we as human rights lawyers begin to condemn them.

Guma: So in this case was this an official position adopted by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights or it was simply the representative in the Bulawayo office taking a unilateral decision or just airing his views.

Phulu: The representative in the Bulawayo office did communicate about our inquiry to his superiors and he said, I will take it up with my superiors. And I did communicate with the Director of the organization and at the end of the day if someone is sitting in custody and is not being attended to by those lawyers who represent human rights. We act on the feedback that we get.

And so on the basis of that, because they didn’t issue a statement to say, oh we won’t represent them but we did communicate with them, they indicated that they were not prepared to deal with the matter and in fact it got to a point where, when, after I wrote an e-mail to them I said look did you guys see my e-mail, they refused to talk to me about it.

So on that basis lawyers in Bulawayo proceeded to act on their behalf because we could not wait for the resolution of this matter before they could get representation. It was almost a week down the line when we were still talking and because lawyers from different law firms and different walks of life came together to represent these people.

And remember it’s not just Siwela and two others, there were about …(inaudible) who were then subsequently released because there was no case against them. There were three other people who subsequently got arrested at an even later date. There is now Mrs. Siwela who was also invited to the police station and is being persecuted.

So we found ourselves doing all these cases but no one was interested in those, absolutely no advocacy about the matter at international level and even at a local level. We decided look, why don’t we form a loose coalition of our own where we can formally be able to communicate and represent these people. That is what it comes down to.

Guma: Okay you have spoken there about Irene (Petras). Let’s just let our listeners know that Irene Petras is the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. We did speak to her last week and she denied press reports that their organization had refused to represent the three officials and in fact Mr. Phulu I will ask you to respond to this.

We asked her whether they would have represented the trio and she said that this was a ‘moot point’ as they were never approached and Siwela and his colleagues had already engaged their own lawyers. Your reaction to that?

Phulu: First before I even respond to that, our focus is not to demonize the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights or to say bad things about them. Our focus is to ensure that these people are represented and thereafter our focus is to ensure that other people who find themselves in that similar position are represented.

And also perhaps we find that maybe we are the ones who are best placed to represent people here because we are in touch with their issues, we won’t condemn them before the courts do. Getting back to the issue of whether Irene denies that all those things, in such a bold statement. Clearly that is not true because I personally spoke to her about it.

My colleague who is a legal practitioner, in fact when approached by these people his first…(inaudible) as we always do was to refer those people to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights as we always do and they were so, his attempt to refer them to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights by contacting Lizwe Jamela was rebuffed. I subsequently talked to Irene on two occasions about this and I also sent an e-mail which I copied to our clients and my colleagues.

So the e-mail is there and that e-mail will bear us out. But in any case for us that is not the issue. Our organization is not about a split, it’s not about justifying why we decided to take the action that we did. Our organization is about representing our target group. Our organization is about being lawyers for human rights and standing up for human rights issues.

And our organization is not going to be driven by what Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights say and what they don’t say.

We will continue forward with the decision that we have taken, small as we are, we believe we are right and sometimes when decisions that are correct, that are justified, that are moral, always have these tough consequences that you will be pitted against these big giants who have all the money, with all the voice, with all the clout, but that we don’t mind, we are prepared to move ahead.

Guma: Now we also posed the question why the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights were not detailing the Siwela case in their e-mail updates and Petras who is the Executive Director told us this was because they were not being given any information from the lawyers representing the trio, is this true?

Phulu: Again the first port of call is to say any human rights lawyer and we know Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights is a big institution, they have got the ability, they are very good at their job, they do it well and I wouldn’t believe that people will be charged, arrested for having a meeting, high profile people like Paul Siwela, Gazi and others, charged with treason, put in custody and they (ZLHR) would not get to know about it.

In fact we even told them about it on many occasions and even when they choose not to represent them surely they should go to court and hear what happens. There have been many different court appearances that have been reported in the local papers, so does it mean they failed to pick those up and actually report about them?

And what of my e-mail that I sent to them, after that did not get any….in fact one of the things that infuriated me really, is the fact that even after that e-mail you still get an update that says, oh there is a treason case where, there is only one treason case, when I’ve given you the facts that there is also another treason case that taking place. Human rights lawyers find things out, human rights lawyers don’t let things come to them.

Guma: Now listening to you talk Mr. Phulu it does sound like there seems to be a communication breakdown somewhere. I’m sure even our listeners are still struggling to understand why a decision would be made not to represent this trio.

Phulu: The decision is based on the pre-conception that people have, preconceived ideas that people have about others. Let me give you an example. People from Matabeleland are violent and they stab you at every opportunity where you have their back to them. And you get the same decision being made by a judge an immigration judge in the UK which has the same import to say that if people are deported to Matabeleland and they are not from there, they will face violence.

So it is on the basis of those pre-conceived ideas that people from the Mthwakazi Liberation Front, merely because they are calling for secession it means that they want to chase away Shona people, its means they want to take up an armed struggle, that is not correct.

And even if you look at the record in that case and I’m not a member of this political party, if you talk to Paul Siwela or anyone they will tell you, we don’t agree with Phulu and his devolution and I always choose to disagree with them but they will tell you that in terms of their constitution it says that they want to achieve these things peacefully. In terms of the limits, in terms of which they are charged they have said we want to dissociate ourselves from violence.

They have purportedly written a letter to the president to say look we want to dissociate ourselves from violence. In terms of the posters themselves, they say we want a Mthwakazi nation made up of all different people including the Shona people in terms of the very same posters they have been charged with and they call upon the army to put down their guns and refuse to shoot people.

How can you reach a decision that these people are violent? It is because you make decisions before you actually go and look at the facts, the hard facts on the ground. You make a decision based on a pre-conceived idea about people and that is wrong.

Guma: In terms of the decision making within the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, how would a decision like this be arrived at, would a committee sit to decide, would an individual decide, is it the executive director that makes a decision.

Phulu: In terms of a decision like this, look, I wouldn’t want to start detailing the structures of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. But there is something called a rapid reaction with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. When people are arrested, the person on the ground in Bulawayo was supposed to make the decision, a snap decision whether or not he was going to be representing people or not. Assuming he felt he could not make the decision. I think he was really right to say, I want to consult.

But that consultation must have been done quickly and reached a result that said look whether these people are human rights defenders or not. In this case they reached the decision that these people were not human rights defenders. Now in terms of the overall decision making, you know, regarding these processes. When you reach the director, the director is able to make a definite decision about this. And the fact that I talked to her and after I talked to her nothing happened. So that in itself was an indication that they were not interested in the case at all.

Guma: Now you have since formed the Abammeli Human Rights Network to represent people in your area. Does this mean you have reached a point of no return where this matter cannot be amicably resolved?

Phulu: Well there are a number of lawyers that were involved in coming up with that decision it really was not my decision or any one person’s decision. But when the decision was made, it became clear that look, we believe in representing people without discriminating about them.

The other people I’m sure they believe in the same things as well but in terms of the way things unfolded on the ground, we did believe we cannot form our own human rights organization and remain members of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, that would simply not be proper, we had to make a decision that clearly sets us apart.

But however at an organizational level we remain open to working with anyone including the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights because perhaps our different perspectives, our different points of view can complement each other. However if people don’t wanna work with us again there is nothing that we can do about it.

So I wouldn’t look at it from the point of an irretrievable break down but the fact on the ground is that there is another organization that has been formed, we have done our advocacy with the people and civil society on the ground and they have accepted us overwhelmingly and there is nowhere we can go back to them and say look, we are now dissolving our organization, it really would not augur well.

And we expect that there will be cases in future where we don’t agree on who is a human rights defender and who is not.

Guma: And finally Mr. Kucaca Phulu you are of course the chairman of a very respected human rights group ZimRights. In terms of your work do you think now we are going to have this North-South divide that will prove problematic in the execution of whatever mandate that you have?

Phulu: Ah well Lance, fortunately I don’t think that there is a North-South divide in civic society, certainly there is no North-South divide in this case. In fact that is why you have many organizations having different chapters in different regions because they realize that each region comes with its own terrain which may be different from the other regions. So we are just an organization that has been formed.

And remember the organization has been formed, yes in Matabeleland by an issue  that happened in Matabeleland. But remember we are not the Matabeleland Human Rights Lawyers Network, we are Abammeli Human Rights Lawyers Network and that does not necessarily restrict us to the South. Any like minded people who want to work with us.

In fact we have one or two members in Harare as I speak, because they identify with what we stand for and as the organization grows you will find we will be able to cover as wide an area as possible. But if we find that in other areas people do not want to work with us or they don’t agree with us then obviously we will not be found there.

But right now the people who need us, the area where there is a knack of representation for our people is right here in Matabeleland. That’s where we are starting. Unlike many organizations, many people who sit down and say hmmm, I would like to start an organization, we haven’t done that, we are just a network of lawyers who are dedicated to representing human rights defenders.

Guma: Well Zimbabwe that was Kucaca Phulu the ZimRights chairman joining us on the programme to talk about the case involving the Mthwakazi Liberation Front trio, a case of course which saw prominent lawyers in Bulawayo teaming up to form the Abammeli Human Rights Lawyers Network to represent activists in that part of the country. Mr. Phulu thank you for joining us on Behind the Headlines.

Phulu: Thank you Lance

Guma: Well soon after the interview with Kucaca Phulu we got a statement from Irene Petras, the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. The statement reads as follows;

As a professional law-based organisation with limited funding for litigation, ZLHR has strict standardised procedures for the take-up of cases by lawyers on its behalf.

The organisation does not cover cases in which lawyers deploy themselves and then ask, or expect, ZLHR to cover their legal fees after the fact. Genuine and dedicated ZLHR members are quite alive to, and aware of, such procedures which are undertaken for ZLHR to represent any Human Rights Defender.

These procedures were not followed in the case at hand. Any additional allegations as to why ZLHR did not take up this case are therefore malicious and unfounded. We are reliably informed that the MLF accused are already represented by 5 lawyers of their own choice, as is their constitutional right, and we wish them the best of luck.

We believe that the unsubstantiated complaints and allegations against ZLHR are being raised by some people who have an unfortunate and regrettable misconception that human rights lawyering is an industry and not a passion.

ZLHR has a long and proud record of service over the last 15 years to tens of thousands of Zimbabweans from all walks of life. Our work, values and commitment to promotion and protection of the rights of all Zimbabweans speak for themselves and require no justification.

We view Abammeli not as competitors, but as compatriots. We wish them all the best in their endeavours and hope that their work will contribute further to the promotion and protection of the human rights of an increased number of Zimbabweans, particularly as we struggle to achieve access to justice for all.

Irene Petras, Executive Director, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights

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