ALBERT Matapo, one of the six men accused of plotting to topple President Robert Mugabe in May, is certainly going to spend the festive season in remand prison as
a result of the current strike by magistrates and prosecutors.
His bid to file an application for refusal of further remand fell by the wayside, as the courts could not hear it due to the industrial action and it will probably be heard next year if the magistrates resume work.
Matapo’s lawyer Charles Warara said he wanted the courts to free his client and join his family and enjoy the festive season as he was convinced that he did not commit treason as alleged by the state.
“We wanted to make an application for refusal of further remand but we cannot as long as the magistrates and prosecutors are not at work,” said Warara.
Matapo is just one of the many suspects who have been denied their right to speedy justice as enshrined in the constitution because of the strike.
For the first time in Zimbabwe’s 27 years of Independence, magistrates and judicial officers went on strike in protest at poor working conditions and low salaries thereby denying litigants and accused persons their right to swift justice in the courts.
The industrial action that is in its eighth week has virtually paralysed operations at the magistrates courts throughout the country with law experts saying criminal courts have been turned into remand institutions.
Regional magistrates, who did not join the strike, are dealing only with remand cases.
Besides dealing with criminal cases the magistrate courts also handle civil cases such as solemnising marriages, maintenance issues and appointment of executors.
Prominent lawyer Alec Muchadehama said the situation at the courts has become desperate as they have been reduced to remand institutions.
“Since the strike started in October the courts have been failing to handle court applications, sentences and acquittals and other judicial procedures, but now they are
only dealing with remands,” said Muchadehama.
In an interview with The Zimbabwe Independent, Muchadehama said the judiciary is the weakest arm of the state since it has no money of its own and relies on handouts from others which therefore robs it of its independence.
“Their substance depends on the Public Service Commission which itself doesn’t have money and can choose when to or not to give them money,” said Muchadehama.
Muchadehama bemoaned the losses that have been incurred due to the strike.
“How does one quantify the loss to clients who have paid their lawyers to go to courts and the time that has been lost yet no one has come forward to explain to the nation why they are being denied their basic human rights,” Muchadehama said.
He added that all that is happening at the courts mirrors that the country has lost respect for the rule of law.
“It is high time that someone challenged the government for infringing on the basic rights of people. The government has an obligation to explain to people on what is happening at the courts,” added Muchadehama.
Last week at least 150 lawyers signed a petition calling the government to address the grievances of the striking magistrates, prosecutors and court support staff.
The petition was handed to parliament on Monday in recognition of the International Human Rights Day.
The human rights lawyers said they were concerned with the continued violation of human rights.
“Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and its undersigned members and some of its partners’ members note with concern the continued violation of human rights with impunity by the government of Zimbabwe, and its refusal to address the country’s long standing human rights concerns,” said the lawyers in the petition.
In the petition, the lawyers said the strike was making life difficult for suspects and those in remand.
“The on-going strike by the magistrates, prosecutors and the court support staff has made the lives of suspects and those on remand difficult,” the lawyers said.
“Because the courts are not working, the prisoners at police stations are not taken to court within the stipulated time limits, or at all.
“Those in custody continue to be deprived of their rights to liberty and trial within a reasonable period, all because the government is broke and unable or unwilling to give the court officials remuneration that enables them to live in dignity.”
The human rights lawyers called upon the government to improve the working
conditions and salaries of judicial and legal officers.
“The government is called upon to award decent salaries to and improve the working conditions of the affected judicial and legal officers.”
Earlier this year in January Justice Rita Makarau took a swipe at the government for neglecting the judiciary when she officially opened the 2007 legal year.
“It is wrong by any measure to make the judiciary beg for its sustenance. It is wrong to make the judiciary beg for resources from any other source. Yet, if I do not do so today, the judiciary shall continue to operate without computers, without adequate stationery and shall continue to use libraries that the Chief Magistrate has aptly described as varying only in their degrees of uselessness,” said Makarau in her speech.
The judiciary also happens to be one of the hardest hit government departments by the brain drain.
The UN Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, Cuba, August 27 to September 7 1990 expressly and without reservation state that reasonable conditions of service of prosecutors and adequate remuneration should be facilitated and made available by governments.
This is so as to improve access to justice and fair treatment, restitution, compensation and assistance for victims of crime.
The year ends on a low note as a number of suspects who include suspected criminals and traffic offenders who are in custody awaiting trial will greet the New Year behind bars as the government has robbed them of their basic rights to a fair trial within a reasonable time as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.