3 August 2006

Zimbabwe: Assault On Judiciary

Harare — THE independence of the judiciary has once again come under the microscope, following the refusal by Manicaland magistrates to try Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, citing alleged intimidation by State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa.

Chief magistrate Herbert Mandeya on Tuesday withdrew before plea charges of obstructing the course of justice that had been levelled against Chinamasa after the state indicated that not a single magistrate in the eastern province was prepared to hear the case involving the head of their parent ministry.

In declining to hear Chinamasa's case, the magistrates told an open court that Mutasa had intimidated them by accusing the court officials of being Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) members. This development, described by the legal fraternity as disconcerting, will bring into sharper focus what is widely seen as Zimbabwe's scant regard for the rule of law and government's failure to curb the abuse of political power.

The charges against Chinamasa, who spearheaded a purge of the country's judiciary at the height of the controversial land redistribution exercise, stemmed from an incident in which he allegedly tried to influence key witnesses to withdraw charges arising from incidents of violence that rocked Mutasa's Makoni North constituency in the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections. Although Mutasa was later exonerated, several of his supporters were implicated in the violence.

Sources told The Financial Gazette yesterday that officials in the Attorney-General's office were disconcerted by this latest debacle in the justice system, less than three months after prosecutors clashed with state security agents in Manicaland over the discovery of an arms cache. Officials from the AG's office declined to prosecute suspects in the case, citing undue pressure and interference by state security agents. Two senior law officers had to beat a hasty retreat from Mutare last March as the state's case against those implicated in the arms case crumbled in acrimonious circumstances.

The AG, Sobusa Gula-Ndebele, who is reported to have an icy relationship with Chinamasa, did not return calls from this newspaper to comment on developments pertaining to Chinamasa's trial. However, his lead prosecutor in Manicaland, Levyson Chikafu, this week signalled his department's eagerness to prosecute.

Mutasa, who is central to the intriguing case, which is widely considered a sideshow to the complex succession battles in ZANU PF, this week denied intimidating the magistrates.

"It is all total lies," said the state security minister.

"I have never spoken to any of them (magistrates). They are lying about me and I don't even know that person saying those things at all," said Mutasa. "When I appeared before the court in Rusape, it was before a man and not this woman saying these things. I never said anything intimidating or threatening. It's all lies, lies," he added.

Chinamasa said he was not at liberty to discuss the issue. "Talk to my lawyer," he said.

Chinamasa's lawyer, James Mutizwa had urged the court to give his client his day in court.

The legal fraternity has expressed outrage at the development, saying it was evidence of the selective application of justice in Zimbabwe.

"It is disconcerting that magistrates feel they can't preside over a matter that involves a government minister," said Law Society of Zimbabwe president Joseph James said.

"What this emphasises is the fact that the judiciary here, including the magistrates, should be independent of the Minister of Justice. Yes, I can understand the dilemma of the magistrates but all this does really is to bring the administration of justice in this country into disrepute in the eyes of the ordinary man in the street," he said.

Jacob Mafume, the coordinator of Crisis in Zimbabwe, a pro-democracy pressure group, said the magistrate's decision reflected badly on the state of the law in the country.

"It all goes to the heart of the problem, the breakdown of the rule of law in this country," said Mafume. "The judiciary is being held at ransom by a few individuals. It suggests that there are Zimbabweans above the law, better citizens than others."

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