8 February 2001

Exodus of judges looms

By Basildon Peta (Financial Gazette)

SEVERAL Zimbabwean judges have begun searching for alternative employment elsewhere in southern Africa because of frustration over the government’s siege on the judiciary, it was established this week.

The move by the judges became known just as ZANU PF announced that Vice President Simon Muzenda will tomorrow chair a caucus meeting of ruling party legislators in Harare to consider, among other issues, a resolution for the "removal of all the judges of the Supreme Court".

Judges interviewed by the Financial Gazette this week said the volatile period leading to the 2002 presidential elections could see a number of judges quitting the bench in frustration to go into private practice or to take more lucrative employment elsewhere in the region. One High Court judge said he was being considered for a judicial job in Namibia while another said he was scouting for alternative employment in Botswana. The two judges said they knew of at least three other colleagues who were also hunting for employment outside Zimbabwe. The judges spoke to this newspaper on condition they are not named for ethical reasons.

"Although most of us have been determined to stay on, sometimes you just end up telling yourself that it’s not worth it. We are being labelled MDC judges even by some of our colleagues here," one of the judges said.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is Zimbabwe’s biggest opposition party which nearly toppled ZANU PF in landmark parliamentary elections last June.

"Our conditions of service have remained poor. The greatest fear in some of us is that we might end up being eliminated physically," the judge said. The other judge said he had "frightening information" on the government’s attempts to dilute the present character of the judiciary, under incessant attack by President Robert Mugabe and Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa for refusing to bend the law to suit ZANU PF’s whims.

The judge said he and colleagues, with whom he had shared this information, no longer felt secure remaining on the Zimbabwe bench. He said he could not yet share the information with the media. "It seems that for one to be accepted as a fair judge you have to discard the book of rules and pass judgments in favour of the government and the ruling party. This is skewed reasoning on the part of some political upstarts who have now completely discredited themselves by doing more talking than thinking," the judge said.

Mugabe, Chinamasa and Information Minister Jonathan Moyo have made no secrets the government’s intention to "revamp" the operations of the judiciary, which they brand colonial.

One senior judge said he understood that part of the measures being mulled by the government include appointing more judges of appeal to the Supreme Court to "neutralise the influence of the present justices who are perceived as anti–ZANU PF".

Law expert Lovemore Madhuku said there was nothing in law to stop the government from appointing more judges of appeal to the Supreme Court. "The Constitution does not set a maximum number of judges who can be appointed to the Supreme Court. It only states the minimum number of Supreme Court judges at five so there is nothing at law to stop the government from doing that," he said. "By appointing more ZANU PF judges of appeal, the government can always ensure that it wins its cases. It is however a heavy handed way of muzzling the judiciary."

ZANU PF’s chief whip Joram Gumbo said tomorrow’s caucus meeting had been called specifically to discuss last week’s Supreme Court judgment that overruled Mugabe’s decree which sought to nullify court challenges by the MDC against 39 parliamentary seats won by the ruling party in the June ballot. Muzenda would chair the meeting because of its importance, he said. Gumbo said the Supreme Court, by nullifying Mugabe’s decree, had effectively usurped the role of the legislature in making laws. "The situation now confronting the nation is one in which the Supreme Court has arrogated itself both the executive and legislative powers and functions," he charged. He said the caucus would consider a resolution to remove all Supreme Court judges and ensure that the doctrine of the separation of powers contained in the Constitution was maintained.

Meanwhile, the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ) this week re-affirmed its confidence in the judiciary, including the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay, who was forced into premature retirement by the government last week. The society, in a resolution passed at its annual general meeting, said it deplored all attempts by the government to impair the independence of the judiciary and create a partisan bench. "Criticism of the judiciary should be legitimate and it should not be aimed at coercing judges to hand down partisan opinions," the LSZ said. It also condemned violence against the media, violence in the redistribution of land and the government’s interference with the freedom of procession and assembly.

LSZ head Sternford Moyo said government media reports that the society’s meeting which agreed these resolutions was attended by more whites than black lawyers were a complete distortion of facts. Many senior and highly respected black lawyers had attended the meeting and voted in favour of the resolutions, he said.

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