Comment: Police Conduct: Wake up call to GNU

ELSEWHERE in this edition we carry details of a recent High Court ruling by Justice Charles Hungwe in an application by MDC activists who were abducted by the state and illegally detained by police.


The ruling by Justice Hungwe is a distressing illustration of the difficulties that face the unity government in the area of law and order.

It is evidence that among all facets of this society crying for change, the reform of the police must be attended to urgently. In the case we report on, Justice Hungwe heard of how the police detained the activists including a two-year-old child for extended periods of time, in breach of international conventions and the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

“The respondents (police and the state) have denied the applicants the protection of the law,” said Hungwe. “The respondents have permitted the applicants to be detained in communicado. People are at risk of torture or other forms of ill-treatment if they are detained in communicado. The risk increases the longer they are held as this allows for a longer period for injuries to be inflicted and visible marks of these injuries to fade.

“Further, detainees have a right of access to legal advice without delay. They should be able to consult with a lawyer in private while in custody, to have a lawyer present during interrogations and to represent them when they appear in court. Lawyers should be able to advise and represent their clients in accordance with professional standards free from intimidation, hindrance, harassment and without improper interference from any quarter. This is trite.”

He added: “No-one is above the law or below it. In the present case the 3rd and 4th respondents have callously demonstrated the affinity to act as if they were above the law.”

This conduct by the force –– as spelt out by Justice Hungwe — is a wake-up call for the unity government in which the MDC and Zanu PF co-share the ministry of Home Affairs responsible for the police. They urgently need to consider reform of the police as a priority.

This strong statement by Justice Hungwe is not the first such indictment of police by the court. But condemnation alone is not enough. What is required is real action by the government to improve policing in this country.

In parliament last week co-Home Affairs minister Giles Mutsekwa was coy when responding to questions on the use of torture to extract confessions by the police. He said the ministry does not approve of this but failed to  unambiguously condemn the practice.  

In response to another question about police failures to investigate complaints of torture, he pointed to the difficulty of proving such cases. That is not reassuring at all, nor was his bashful comments in an SW Radio interview recently on the task to hand in reforming the police.

“The challenge that I see and face is that of trying to transform the thinking, the behaviour and indeed the face of the entire workers of the ministry and that includes the police force itself,” he said.

“I know that is going to take some time but as you know we are now under this inclusive government and people who are watching us from afar — both regionally and internationally — would want to judge the success or failure of the inclusive government through my ministry because we are in charge of ensuring that there is law and there is also order in the country.”

How long do we have to wait for this to happen? One way this government can demonstrate resolve in solving this crisis is ensuring that the country’s image is restored. That entails demonstrating the ability of the police to enforce the law competently without abridging civil liberties and not blatantly taking sides.

As Morgan Tsvangirai pointed out last weekend, it is a fact that lawlessness is an affront to economic development. It is unlikely Zimbabwe will succeed in an environment where property rights and human rights are non-existent. Lawlessness only perpetuates poverty.

Reforming our police so that they are a professional service that is not misused for partisan purposes is central to ensuring basic security and fighting crime. Doing so will ensure that protecting Zimbabweans is the first priority of law enforcement and the foundation for good governance.

Although such reforms have been encouraged for years without much progress, we urge all politicians involved in the unity government to acknowledge that police reforms are too important to neglect and too urgent to delay.

There is need to ensure that the police command structure is not tainted with politics and that senior appointments are carefully vetted to guarantee professionalism. There must be investment in training and ensuring the force is properly equipped to fight crime.

Then key to the process of reform must be measures to ensure police desist from asking for bribes. This is now being done so openly that one would think it was legal. 

 
This is key in shaping a police service committed to upholding the law rather than a coercive force shoring up political patrons.

BY VINCENT KAHIYA