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Rights activists condemn constitutional changes

Zimbabwean human rights activists condemned sweeping constitutional amendments approved by parliament on Tuesday, arguing the government has undermined basic freedoms.

Describing the proposed changes to the constitution as the “worst piece of legislation yet”, Joseph Jame

s, president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, said lawyers “across political and ideological lines” had, for the first time, taken a stance against the new legislation.

“It is worse than the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), as the current legislation attacks the very basis of our constitution,” he commented, in reference to two controversial laws that limit freedoms of association and expression.

The law society is considering taking its protest to either the African Commission on Human Rights or the Supreme Court in Zimbabwe, which also functions as the Constitutional Court.

James pointed out that the 22-clause Constitutional Amendment Bill abolishes freehold property titles; removes the landowner’s right to appeal expropriation; usurps the authority of the courts, and will restrict the movement of Zimbabweans.

The bill also seeks to reconstitute parliament as a bicameral legislature, consisting of a 60-seat senate and a House of Assembly. The new senate will not have the authority to initiate legislation, but can review legislation proposed by the assembly.

Forty-five of the 60 members will be elected to the house in elections to be held in October. Each province will elect two senators – the remaining 15 will be nominated with the final approval of the president, which critics have alleged will be used to reward loyalists.

Soon after a controversial landslide election victory in March, Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party announced its plans to use its two-thirds parliamentary majority to change the constitution.

National political commissar Elliot Manyika told IRIN that the House of Senate was necessary for strengthening constitutional democracy and widening the process of parliamentary decision-making, based on national consensus. The senate was abolished in 1987.

James insisted the amendments were an “undisguised frontal assault” on the rights of Zimbabweans, which “fully merit censure”.

The amendments “seek to demolish and attack the fundamental principle of constitutionalism, ensured by the separation of powers, checks and balances, independent constitutional review by an independent judiciary, and protection of individual rights”.

“As officers of the Court, with a duty to the law and the pursuit of these principles, we cannot sit back and fail to act whilst fundamental rights accruing to people by virtue of their existence and dignity as human beings are being attacked,” he observed.

Earlier on Tuesday while introducing the bill in parliament, news agencies reported that Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said the amendments would bring to full circle Zimbabwe’s war against British colonial rule which culminated in independence in 1980.

“This amendment will conclude the third chimurenga and the process of decolonisation,” he said.

The government’s fast-track land reform programme, launched in 2000, targeted the colonial legacy of land ownership, in which a small group of largely white commercial farmers owned vast tracts of the country’s most fertile land. But it was accompanied by violence and intimidation.

Several farmers had successfully challenged the expropriation of their farms in administrative courts, where over 5 000 land acquisition cases dating back to 2000 were reportedly still waiting to be heard.

The changes to the property clause now allows government to seize land without being challenged in court; moreover any court decision taken against expropriation during the implementation of the land reforms will be overturned in favour of the state.

Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) director Munyaradzi Bidi described the amendments as an “evil piece of legislation, which completes the cycle of repression”, and said the changes to the property clause would have “far-reaching consequences in a country dependent on agriculture”.

Amendments to the constitution’s freedom of movement clauses now allows the authorities to confiscate passports of those deemed a threat to national security. Chinamasa told IRIN earlier this month that there was no need for law-abiding citizens to worry about the proposed changes.

Zimbabwe’s constitution has reportedly been amended 16 times since independence in 1980. The last attempt at constitutional reform was in 2000, when the government’s recommendations were rejected in a referendum. — IRIN

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