May 15, 2007

Law school honors activist in Zimbabwe

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE -- The Southern Illinois University School of Law honored a prominent lawyer and outspoken advocate for human rights in the African nation of Zimbabwe during commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 12.

Arnold Tsunga received the law school's 2007 Rule of Law Citation. The citation is a formal recognition by law school faculty "of the important tradition of the legal profession that requires lawyers to stand firm in support of liberty and justice in the face of oppression and, by their words and actions, to honor and support the Rule of Law even at great personal risk," Dean Peter C. Alexander said.

A total of 121 law students earned degrees in ceremonies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Shryock Auditorium.

Tsunga is executive director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights; secretary to the Law Society of Zimbabwe; chair of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, or ZimRights; and a trustee of an independent radio station, "Voice of the People."

Tsunga received the 2006 Martin Ennals Awards for Human Rights Defenders. Tsunga has also served as an International Fellow of the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

According to the watchdog organization Human Rights, Tsunga is a target of his government because of radio broadcasts criticizing the Zimbabwe government and its president, Robert Mugabe, for not respecting the rights of all Zimbabweans, law professor Mark R. Lee said during the ceremony.

Tsunga is the victim of repeated harassment and threats by government officials, Lee said. In 2002, officials seized Tsunga without warrant, held him for several hours, and beat him in full view of the public. In January 2006, after police entered his home, they held Tsunga's housekeepers at a police station until Tsunga's arrival and arrest. The three workers were severely beaten while in custody, Lee said.

And, according to a recent news release by Amnesty International, police assaulted several lawyers on Tuesday, May 8, before their release. The lawyers represent activists from political opposition parties.

Law school officials placed a commencement hood and scroll on an empty chair in the front row with law school faculty.

"It symbolizes this lawyer is with us in spirit as we celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates," Alexander said. "It is also a reminder to our graduates that in becoming a lawyer you may be called upon to take very serious stands on very important issues, and there may be very dire consequences."

The Rule of Law Citation raises public awareness "about the plight of this attorney," Alexander said.

"We hold this person up to our students and their guests as an example of what a lawyer should be," he said.