Blow to treason trial as lawyer withdraws
Windhoek — A MEMBER of the team of defence lawyers in the main Caprivi high treason trial brought the trial to a standstill yesterday with an announcement that she was withdrawing from the case.
Zambian lawyer Winnie Sithole Mwenda has been involved in the Caprivi high treason case since being instructed by the Directorate of Legal Aid in April 2003 to represent a group of the 124 men who were then facing prosecution on charges that they were involved in a bid to secede the Caprivi Region from Namibia between 1992 and 2002.
With almost six years having passed since then, and the number of people remaining on trial before Judge Elton Hoff now down to 117 due to deaths in their ranks, Sithole Mwenda dropped a bombshell yesterday by announcing to Judge Hoff that she would withdraw from representing her 10 clients from the start of February.
"This is a matter which I've given serious thought, but the move has been necessitated by some serious family matters at home, which regrettably make it necessary for me to go back home," she said.
Sithole Mwenda told The Namibian later yesterday that family responsibilities - she has to take care of her mother, who lives in Zambia - were the reason for her decision to withdraw from the trial.
She said it had not been easy for her over the past five years and nine months to spend the biggest part of the year in Namibia while also trying to shoulder her family responsibilities in Zambia.
"I would have loved being here to the end," she remarked, adding that "nobody even knows when this is going to end".
The marathon trial, of which the main part started in August 2004, is now in its sixth year, with no end in sight yet and the prosecution still presenting its case to the court.
Sithole Mwenda also confirmed that she has been appointed as Permanent Secretary in Zambia's Ministry of Labour. That appointment was not the reason for her decision to withdraw from the trial, though, she said.
Sithole Mwenda obtained a Doctor of Laws degree from the University of South Africa in 2007. Her field of study was alternative dispute resolution.
"I must say, speaking for myself, I was stunned by the withdrawal of Ms Sithole Mwenda," fellow defence team member Patrick Kauta told Judge Hoff after she had made her announcement to the court.
The immediate effect of her withdrawal is that her 10 clients, who are now no longer legally represented, would need to be provided with another defence counsel to take her place.
If a new defence lawyer has to be brought into the trial, a lengthy postponement of the matter appears to be inevitable.
The typewritten transcript of proceedings in the trial so far is now nearing the 27000-page mark.
The trial record also includes more than 500 exhibits that have been handed in as evidence in the matter.
Relevant Links Southern Africa Legal and Judicial Affairs Namibia In addition to familiarising himself or herself with this mountain of evidence while going through the testimony given by the 341 prosecution witnesses that have so far testified before Judge Hoff in the main part of the trial, a new defence lawyer would also have to study the parts of the Police docket and hundreds of witness statements and statements claimed to have been made by some of the accused that have been disclosed to the defence up to now.
In the light of Sithole Mwenda's withdrawal, the leader of the prosecution team, Deputy Prosecutor General Herman January, asked Judge Hoff for a postponement of the case to Monday.
He told the court that her withdrawal raised several issues that have to be considered, and said the court would be informed on Monday whether the trial would be proceeding at this stage or not.