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DLA Piper US1 (11)


In early February, Lewis Conwell, a partner at DLA Piper, sat in a room in Pretoria, South Africa, interviewing women who had been raped and attacked by militia members loyal to Zimbabwe president The Am Law Pro Bono 100Robert Mugabe’s regime. The lawyer remembers one Zimbabwean victim in particular who shifted her gaze as she detailed a rape incident.

At the start of the session, the victim, Margaret, looked at Conwell, one of two DLA lawyers present and the one asking the questions. As Margaret got deeper into her story and closer to details of her rape, she turned to Conwell’s partner, a female DLA lawyer. Then Margaret turned to a local interpreter. As she took Conwell through the actual rape–step by step, remembering as many specifics as possible–she stared at the floor, then at the wall, and, finally, she hid her face with her hands.
“You are causing a woman to relive a horrific experience,” says Conwell, noting that the process isn’t one he’s inclined to repeat. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat if it needed to be done, but I’d really prefer someone else do it.”

Conwell is one of nine DLA lawyers assisting the nonprofit AIDS-Free World (AFW) in documenting dozens of politically motivated rape cases committed during the 2008 presidential election campaign in Zimbabwe. He was interested in the job in part because of his experience working with domestic violence victims as part of a pro bono project in Tampa, where he is based. About 50 DLA lawyers applied for the AFW project; the firm chose nine based on prior experience working with trauma victims or preparing affidavits.

DLA and AFW plan to interview 50 victims who say they were kidnapped and raped, sometimes by several men at a time, because of their loyalty to Zimbabwe’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The firm got involved after a staff member at the Human Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School mentioned New Perimeter, DLA’s wholly owned pro bono nonprofit, to contacts at AFW. (Canada’s Blake, Cassels & Graydon took an initial trip to Botswana with AFW; the nonprofit ultimately determined that DLA was better equipped to make a longer term commitment to the work.)

Documenting the acts is one of the first steps in building a case to prosecute the rapists and even the higher-ups in Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party–the officials believed to have ordered the rapes as part of a massive intimidation campaign in the months before a presidential runoff between Mugabe and the main opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Nonprofit organizations operating in Africa typically find the victims and connect them with the DLA-AFW team, lawyers from both organizations say. It’s easy to find victims in Johannesburg, South Africa, where thousands of Zimbabwean refugees have flocked to a Methodist church for shelter and help. (Many women are raped on their journey from South Africa to Zimbabwe by guides who help them cross a river to get there, according to The New York Times.) The lawyers then arrange for drivers to take the women from Johannesburg, where Zimbabwean officials reportedly operate, to a safer location in Pretoria.

On a typical trip, lawyers from DLA and AFW will interview four victims a day over several days. The interviews have taken place in both Botswana and Pretoria. Interviews are done in undisclosed locations that local organizations allow the lawyers to use free of charge.

It is there that the women, a fraction of the 700 or 800 individuals experts believe were raped as part of the terror campaign, have been telling their stories–for anywhere from two to seven hours at a time. The details are harrowing for both the victims recalling them and the lawyers recording them. Conwell, Andrews, AFW general counsel Betsy Apple, and DLA associate Syma Mirza recounted some of what they have documented. Some women were taken to youth militia camps and gang-raped; others were raped in their homes by several ZANU-PF intruders. One victim watched as militia members slammed her four-year-old son’s head against the wall, killing him. In another case, the rapists tossed an infant into a bucket of freezing water. An unknown percentage of the victims contracted HIV as a result of the rapes; at least a few became pregnant.

Often, the stories have striking similarities—a sign, the lawyers say, that the campaign was coordinated from high up. Women were told they were being raped as punishment for supporting the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC. The youth militia used the same words over and over: the women needed to be “fixed” because they were “selling out” Zimbabwe to the West, the assailants said. The militia members used sticks to beat the women on the soles of their feet and the middle of their backs, the lawyers say.

In many cases, the women can identify their attackers by name and face, the lawyers say. “They didn’t fear the repercussions at all,” Andrews says of the attackers.

The affidavits DLA and AFW are drafting are designed in part to bring those repercussions. The lawyers already are researching whether organizations in Africa, such as the Southern African Development Community and African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, have the right and capabilities to take the cases, says Apple. (Already established tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court, are not likely to hear the cases, because they mostly require referrals from the United Nations, Apple says.) There is also the possibility that other nations could extradite perpetrators using jurisdictional powers granted under the statute that set up the International Criminal Court for acts deemed “crimes against humanity,” Apple says.

Lawyers say they have had a hard time containing their emotions during the interviews. The women often ask for HIV drugs, food, and other necessities. The lawyers must stay focused on their jobs and refer the victims to nonprofits who might be able to help them.

“Their primary concern is just their next meal,” Mirza says. “[Then] it’s their health and their family.”

Mirza remembers one refugee victim who stayed relatively calm through the interview–until Mirza asked her whether she had spoken with her siblings since fleeing Zimbabwe. “She just broke down,” Mirza says. The victims, though, understand the need to share their stories. Margaret, the woman who couldn’t bear to face Conwell during parts of her interview, smiled and thanked the lawyers at the end of the meeting, Conwell says.

Mirza is one of several DLA lawyers now going through about three dozen affidavits to flush out names, dates, locations, common patterns, and other variables. (Mirza was chosen to work on the project partly because of her experience interviewing asylum applicants while she was a student at Georgetown law school.) Down the line, the work may pay off.

“Our goal is to hold the people who committed these rapes accountable one way or another,” Apple says.

—Zach Lowe | July 1, 2009

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