Sydney Morning Herald/Staff Writer
PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe is clinging to power by driving judges from office and subverting the entire legal system, an international group of lawyers wh
o recently visited the country has said.
The International Council of Advocates and Barristers said in a report it found that judges and the courts had been “profoundly compromised over the past four years”.
“We have concluded that the Zimbabwean justice system has ceased to be independent and impartial,” the report, titled State of Justice in Zimbabwe, said.
“Many of those within the system have been driven out by some kind of pressure, and much of the legal system of Zimbabwe has been subverted by the Zanu PF government in an effort to frustrate the proper working of democracy and to hold on to power,” it said.
“There are still judges and lawyers in the system that are very courageous and brave and act according to the law, but these people are in danger, which can even mean they fear for their lives.”
A special team of the International Council of Advocates and Barristers led by Stephen Irwing prepared the report on Zimbabwe after a fact-finding visit in April. Other members of the delegation were Glenn Martin, president of the Queensland Bar Association in Australia; vice-chairperson of the South African Bar Justice Poswa; vice-dean of the Faculty of Advocates of Scotland, Roy Martin; and Conor Maguire, chairperson of the Irish Bar.
The delegation met the Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, Judge President Paddington Garwe, acting Attorney-General Bharat Patel, judges, magistrates, prosecutors, clerks, interpreters, and recorders.
By the end of the visit, Irwing and his team had accumulated more than 10kg of documents from evidence given by many people regarding the justice delivery system in the country. The report said some judges had been given land at nominal rents under the government’s land reform scheme. It states that some judges have been promoted above more senior colleagues, while Mugabe’s sympathisers handle sensitive political cases.
“The legal culture has been subverted for political ends,” the report said.
Even the attorney-general — whose role is more akin to a director of public prosecutions — conceded politics was a factor in the appointment of judges. A visit to Patel’s office convinced the council he was “under immense pressure from his political masters”.
It said the interference began after the government published a list of 1 471 white-owned farms for acquisition in 1997. Two years later, the Administrative Court declared the notices invalid and in 2000 the Supreme Court ruled the government had failed to follow the correct procedures for acquisition.
In the past three years four Supreme Court judges have been replaced following withering criticism from the government. In March 2001, a former deputy Justice minister, Godfrey Chidyausiku, was appointed Chief Justice — a month after accusing the then Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay of “bias in favour of white farmers”.
Six months later he was listed as the owner of 895 hectares of farmland in Mazowe. Two of the other appointees have been given more than 1 800 hectares.
The council also recorded the arrest of two judges, one of whom found the Justice minister Chinamasa guilty of contempt in his last case before retirement. Last year, a serving High Court judge was arrested in chambers after handing down a series of anti-government decisions. The charges in both cases were later withdrawn.
At the lower end of the justice system, magistrates have been under attack. In August 2002, one was dragged out of his courtroom by Zanu PF supporters after he granted bail to two officials from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Another was stabbed.
There were now 59 vacancies for magistrates’ posts and a backlog of more than 60 000 cases in April. The council found the judiciary was attacked “to frustrate the proper workings of democracy and to hold on to power. It seems clear they would not have held on to power otherwise.