The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to the Government of Zimbabwe on 9 December 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. Regrettably, the Government did not reply within this time frame. If a reply is received it will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.
Since the communication was sent, Mr. Coltart’s application challenging his placement on remand was dismissed. He filed a review of the Magistrate’s decision in the High Court, which is still pending.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
Topic: successive assaults and detentions carried out against Mr. Douglas James Coltart by Zimbabwean police and security forces, as well as charges brought in connection with the legitimate exercise of his professional activities.
Mr. Douglas James Coltart is a human rights lawyer who, since 2019, has reportedly faced intense harassment, repeated assaults, accusations, legal charges and detentions in the course of his regular work as a legal practitioner. Mr. Coltart has allegedly been beaten, detained, charged and prosecuted in multiple occasions for legitimately exercising his legal practitioner’s prerogatives, essentially for accompanying his clients and filming peaceful protests, trying to access clients in custody to provide legal assistance, and questioning the legality of police raids on a clients’ residence in face of a late-issued search warrant.
On 27 April 2019, a peaceful meeting of teachers that was being facilitated by Mr. Douglas James Coltart, as a lawyer, was raided by state security agents. Participants, along with Mr. Coltart, were abducted, assaulted, detained and charged for ‘participating in a gathering with intent to promote public violence’. The gathering, in which participants discussed a book titled “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” written by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, was deemed illegal for supposedly spearheading civil disobedience in Zimbabwe. Mr. Coltart was eventually prosecuted following the incident but was acquitted of the charges. While in detention, during which period Mr. Coltart’s laptop was surrendered to the police, there was a cyberattack on the server of his law firm.
On 23 August 2019, Mr. Coltart was assaulted and arrested while representing the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ), which sought to hand over a petition to the government demanding better wages and advocating for teacher’s well-being. The incident was filmed and published by Mr. Coltart on Twitter, where it is possible to see the police intercepting and detaining the participants with no explanation. It is also noticeable that no answer was given by the officers to Mr. Coltart’s questions regarding the reason for the arrests. He ended up detained overnight along with the group of protesters, charged with ‘criminal nuisance’, and subsequently prosecuted. He was eventually acquitted of the charges after spending more than a year on remand.
On 23 November 2019, M. Coltart was assaulted, beaten and illegally detained inside the Harare Central Police Station, while trying to get access to his client who had been detained earlier in the same day. The incident was provoked by the Chief Inspector, who unjustifiably denied Mr. Coltart access to his client. The refusal and consequent breach of his client’s rights and his lawyer’s prerogatives prompted Mr. Coltart to file a report of the incident to the Police Controller’s Office. While filling the report, Mr. Coltart was violently seized by a group of anti-riot police into a corridor and assaulted with boot-clad feet, shin-pads and batons, kicked in his back and legs, had head and neck pressed against the floor and his left hand crushed. Very tight handcuffs were also used on him, causing deep cuts to his wrists. The Controller Officer witnessed the entire incident and reportedly did nothing to prevent the assault. Mr. Coltart was also detained that day and initially charged, but subsequently released and the charges were dropped.
On 21 July 2020, Mr. Coltart was again arrested and detained for acting in his lawyer’s capacity while representing a journalist client. At that occasion, Mr. Coltart was legitimately questioning the legality of a home search and the scope of the search warrant issued against his client, prompting the police officers carrying out the search to detain him as a response. He was subsequently released without charges.
On 24 December 2021, a complaint was filed against Mr. Coltart by a Political Party ZANU-PF activist, with the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ), requesting Mr. Coltart’s legal practicing license to be cancelled. The matter is still pending a final decision before the LSZ.
On 22 October 2022, Mr. Coltart was once again arrested, this time on fraud charges in connection to a case also initiated by an activist of the ZANU-PF Political Party, who is facing fraud allegations from a client that Mr. Coltart represents. The evidence suggests that the case was fabricated in retaliation for Mr. Coltart’s work as a lawyer. Mr. Coltart presented evidence in his defence, but the Police refused to consider the evidence. He was released and asked to come to the court the following day, which he did. Mr. Coltart is challenging his placement on remand and still faces spurious fraud charges.
In the communication, we expressed deep concern at the alleged repeated and successive harassment, assaults, detentions and allegations of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and charges against Mr. Coltart in the course of his professional activities as a lawyer.
We are particularly concerned that such incidents may be a form of retaliation against his legitimate work as a human rights lawyer, hence may violate not only his personal rights and professional prerogatives, but also those of his clients. Moreover, the lack of investigation, disciplinary actions and overall lack of accountability of security forces agents involved in the incidents may contribute to have a chilling effect on other legal practitioners and generally on the exercise of the legal profession, as well as on human rights defenders and civil society organizations engaging in peaceful protests or any sort of civic manifestation.