Alec Muchadehama and Andrew Makoni regularly visit Harare’s filthy police cells in their work of defending the victims of Zimbabwe’s repressive government. But last Friday the roles were reversed when these two human rights lawyers ended up prisoners themselves.

Muchadehama and Makoni were arrested as they were leaving the Harare high court, where they were carrying out their routine duties.

The police did not tell Muchadehama and Makoni they were being arrested. They were detained without charge at various police stations for three days.

This arbitrary detention was in defiance of two high court orders that directed the police to allow the men access to their lawyers and ordering that they be immediately released because their detention had been unlawful.

Finally, on Monday, the police released the lawyers—but charged them with obstructing the course of justice.

The arrests of the lawyers comes as no surprise to those who have followed the Zimbabwean government’s seven-year campaign of repression.

The government’s targets include human rights defenders, activists and others who criticise the government—and the lawyers who represent them.

The police routinely arrest and detain political opponents and government critics, and then abuse them in custody. They often do so in blatant defiance of high court orders requiring that the police follow due process.

Muchadehama and Makoni are among the courageous lawyers who have defended hundreds of human-rights activists. They are representing 13 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Harare who have been accused of orchestrating a series of petrol-bomb attacks around the country.

They are working to secure the release of the MDC members, whom they allege the police have tortured.

When Human Rights Watch interviewed Muchadehama in September he was aware of the dangers he faced.

“We are sometimes verbally abused, insulted or threatened when we go to the cells. The police believe that human rights advocates want to topple a democratically elected government. Anything linked to human rights is construed as an attempt to change the government and can get you in trouble,” Muchadehama said.

In March, as President Robert Mugabe’s government unleashed a violent crackdown on activists and opposition members, leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) held an emergency session in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to discuss the crisis.

President Thabo Mbeki was mandated to mediate in talks between the MDC and Zanu-PF. Mbeki has spoken to the leaders of both the MDC factions and to Zanu-PF officials about the talks.

With millions of Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa, Mbeki urgently needs to find a durable solution to the crisis. But time is running out, with mediation talks still at a “pre-dialogue” stage and no end in sight to human rights abuses.

The arrests of Muchadehama and Makoni have shown that recent efforts to find a solution to the crisis have not deterred the Mugabe government from circumventing the rule of law. It continues to clamp down on dissent and tries to prevent human rights defenders from holding the government to its human rights obligations.

The long-term success of Mbeki’s mediation talks rests on a number of elements. Both sides must come to the table in good faith. There must also be focused attention on the human rights violations. These two elements require an active commitment from both sides in Zimbabwe, as well as objective monitoring, with strong involvement, by the SADC.

All the SADC leaders must be forthright about the pressing need to end human rights violations. The SADC should deploy an independent mission to Zimbabwe to investigate allegations of human rights abuses.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in March. Mbeki’s mediation efforts should take place within a specific time-frame to allow for pre-election conditions that will facilitate a level playing field in the run-up to the elections.

South Africa has committed itself to promoting human rights and democracy in the region. The crisis is a test of Pretoria’s willingness to press Zimbabwe to uphold basic rights and freedoms.

Mbeki should show his mettle and determination by pushing for a meaningful agenda that includes respect for human rights and the rule of law as prerequisites for a peaceful and democratic Zimbabwe.

Tiseke Kasambala and Nobuntu Mbelle are in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.