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We Need Judiciary Independence — Majome

PRESSURE groups continue to push for broader reforms in the country’s judiciary and penal system, which is saddled by a critical shortage of food, and in many instances, resulting in inmates contracting and dying from treatable diseases.

Today, a fund-raising function will take place in Harare to raise funds for Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison inmates.

To deal with problems affecting the judiciary and the country’s prisons, the inclusive government under its 100-day plan has set out three key areas for the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs — meeting the needs of prisoners; operationalising the Judicial Service Commission; adhering to minimum standards and best practices; and the needs of justice delivery institutions.

Zimbabwe Independent reporter Bernard Mpofu on Wednesday caught up with Deputy Justice minister Jessie Majome at her Harare office to examine the state of the country’s judiciary and the penal system, among other things. Below is the interview.

Mpofu: What happened to the judicial reforms government embarked on a few years ago?

Majome: Several reforms were made through the Judicial Service Act a few years ago. The Act would see the streamlining of the judicial system in effecting a prudent separation of powers between arms of government. The Act has not been operationalised to date and that has become one of our key results areas in this inclusive government.

Once the Act is implemented we would see the magistracy being moved from the Public Service Commission to the Judicial Service Commission.

Mpofu: Why has it taken so long to operationalise the Act?

Majome: Currently we are assessing the cost of implementing this Act. This is an old Act that was passed when we were still dealing with the Zimbabwean dollar, but that has since changed.

Mpofu: There was also the Attorney-General (AG)’s Bill. What became of it and what reforms we envisaged in the draft law?

Majome: The AG’s Bill reached a second reading in Parliament and then lapsed. Its general objective was similar to the Judicial Service Act in that it intended to achieve human resources and financial reforms.

: A lot of questions have been asked on the autonomy of the AG’s office from political manipulation given that the office falls under the Justice ministry and also that the AG sits in both cabinet and parliament. What is your take on that?

Majome: The configuration of the role and functions of the Attorney- General in this country is one of the most primitive compared to other jurisdictions. Sometimes there is a conflict between the public duty of the office and serving the national interest. It can be difficult to strike a balance between being the government’s chief legal advisor and being a political appointee. The prosecuting function of that office brings that conflict to the fore.

The AG sits in cabinet and how easy would it be for the same AG to prosecute a fellow member of cabinet? I think the AG would be compromised. In countries like Uganda and Canada, there is no AG, but in our case what difference is there between the AG and the minister in terms of their administrative structures?

What we are seeing in Zimbabwe is a demonstration of failure to adequately configure the AG’s office in relation to other legal and political functions in light of the public interest.

In other jurisdictions they recognised this conflict and create an office of an independent prosecuting authority. This was not captured in the lapsed Bill.

Notwithstanding this, our Constitution (Section 76 subsection 7 and 8) attempts to manage that conflict by stating that the AG’s prosecuting function shall be independent from the direction and control of any other person and authority.

Mpofu: We understand that six inmates died last week at Mutimurefu Prison in Masvingo. Can you confirm this and what is government doing to address the dire situation in prisons throughout the country?

: That has not been brought to my attention but we have high rate of deaths in prisons. It is so high that three weeks ago we had 970. We are certainly above 1 000 and that is unacceptable.

Government is seeking assistance because we have been failing to feed and clothe inmates. The International Committee of the Red Cross has offered assistance to our major prisons — Chikurubi, Harare Central and Khami prisons.

Unfortunately we expect the death rate to go up because of a drop in temperatures because of shortages of clothing and blankets.

How many people are incarcerated at the moment?

Majome: Presently we have 14 500 inmates across the country. Our capacity is 17 000 so we are not overcrowded in the mathematical sense but from a qualitative sense we are because the needs of inmates are not being adequately looked at.

: Turning to farming, the Commercial Farmers Union accuses the AG’s office of “fast-tracking” the prosecutions of white farmers who are still on the land despite winning a case at the Sadc Tribunal. What do you say to this?

Majome: The AG has the prerogative on whom to prosecute and the ministry has no control over this prosecuting function.

Mpofu: We understand that a report by police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri to co-Home Affairs minister Giles Mutsekwa outlining the arrest of Independent senior journalists has been copied to your office. Can you confirm this and give us details of the report?

Majome: It has not been brought to my office as I speak.

Mpofu: What is your position on the handing out of different perks to the judiciary by the Reserve Bank instead of the Judicial Service Commission?

: This demonstrates the necessity of ensuring the independence of the judiciary through establishing and maintaining an institution that is adequately resourced and ultimately independent. That is why we would want to operationalise the Judicial Service Act.

Mpofu: What do you say to the current state of our courts which seem to be lacking proper maintenance?

Majome: Our courts as institutions in the justice delivery system are not presently in a state that allows them to administer law and justice. We have difficulties in accessing basic equipment and supplies. Recording equipment for example is in a dysfunctional state and we have also been losing a lot of skilled labour. The state of courts does not invite confidence in the justice system.

The working conditions of officers not spared from the present failure by government to provide resources for the ministry. This has impact on morale and performance of these workers.

We need to take drastic action to unclog backlogs that result from challenges in the justice system.

Mpofu: On a scale of one to 10, how do you rate the ministry’s achievements since the formation of the inclusive government?

Majome: We have a lot of work to do. I’m not sure whether we are at three. Most of our targets in the 100-day plan require capital and at the moment funds coming from the Ministry of Finance are not adequate.

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