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'Where justice is denied, not guaranteed'
Mail & Guardian (SA)
May 03, 2007

The reputation of Zimbabwe's judiciary is in tatters. The public seem to have lost all confidence in the country's judges, whose attitudes and interpretation of law they find questionable, and in most instances where politically motivated crimes are being dealt with by the courts.

The judiciary has been purged since 2000, with Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa forcing white judges to quit the Bench. Appointments to the Bench have become based on political affiliations rather than professional considerations, lawyers in private practice say.

"Inexperienced high court judges became head of the judiciary, and those in the military were then called to the Bench and the political agenda became clear," says a senior lawyer with a private practice.

It is hard to extract positive reaction from the streets, with most people out of fear of political reprisals, simply walked away or hinted fears of a possible abduction should they be identified by the infamous government death squads targeting political opponents.

A culture of fear prevails in the streets, which is compounded by lack of confidence in having a fair trial should one appear before a judge to face charges of a political nature.

"When the MDC [opposition Movement for Democratic Change] political activists appear in court last week, they could barely walk or talk. But the magistrates simply refused to release them for medical examination," says Louis Williams (23), who is self-employed.

The MDC activists were facing charges of organising an underground political movement involved in petrol bombings across the country. The government has since labelled them as "terrorists" with a Western-inspired agenda to effect a regime change.

"Their reasoning had all the hallmarks of political interference. What can magistrates do? They live in a hostile environment in which they take orders from the top," Williams says. "If they don't toe the line, there is no pay rise or promotion."

Magistrates have complained in the past of poor salaries and asked the Justice Ministry for increased car and housing allowances. What they have now is a donated bus to transport them home from the courts. "It's easy to manipulate them," says Williams.

Though Williams is brave enough to express his views, Peter Rugare (25) fears the worst. "You can't talk to strangers. The price you pay for expressing yourself is just too high. When you get in court, you find no justice," he says. Like Williams, he is self-employed and contends "the judiciary is a place where justice is denied, not guaranteed".

"It used to be independent before, but the crackdown on judges when the farm invasions began bears testimony to why things have fallen apart here," he says. "Justice is only guaranteed in a divorce or civil case. But it has to be a matter which doesn't involve a politician or influential person. A politician will use his political muscle and a businessman will buy justice."

Chinamasa has often lambasted magistrates for "accepting bribes" and granting bail to armed robbers under controversial circumstances. He has indicated that low salaries are never a justification for corrupt practices.

But Chinamasa stands in the dock accused of arm-twisting the judiciary and forcing the exit of former chief justice Anthony Gubbay. A former administrative court judge told journalists he was ordered by Chinamasa to refuse to grant the now-defunct privately owned Daily News court application for registration in 2005.

The Daily News was highly critical of government and exposed corruption in high places. The judge defied that order from above, but paid a heavy price. He now lives in exile in South Africa and is completing postgraduate studies at Witwatersrand University.

"Going to court is a waste of time and money," says Sam Urombe (19), who also believes "things will never be the same again".

"If you have no money, or power, justice is never on your side here," he says. Urombe told the Mail & Guardian his friend was involved in a car accident with a drunken state operative last week. "But he has been hauled before the courts as the victim, yet he didn't nothing wrong. Mark my words, he will be jailed, not because he is guilty, but there is a lot of politics at play," he says.

"The concept of the separation of powers is theoretical. There is nothing on the ground to suggest the three pillars of government are separate," says Roslyn Chigumira (not her real name), a 23-year-old law student at the University of Zimbabwe.

"There is gross interference with each pillar by the executive. It's all about politics," she says, adding: "Where the interests of the executive are at stake, politicians won't hesitate to shout orders."

Stuart Chibvamu (26) believes the past seven years have been the worst in the administration of justice. "The police arrest people on political orders, prosecutors are paid to do a hatchet job on political opponents and judges deliver the head on the platter to the delight of politicians," he says.

In an unprecedented departure from the norms of the judiciary, High Court Judge President Rita Makarau last February raised serious concerns about the remuneration of judges and lack of computers. The government moved with speed, printing money, raising the judges' salaries and providing top-of-the-range 4x4 Isuzu vehicles.

"It's not that the government or executive wasn't aware that judges were poorly paid," says an advocate with the Harare Law Chambers who requested anonymity on professional grounds. "You underpay them so that they become malleable or easy to manipulate. Those that are desperate will appeal to the government to give them farms and many got them. There are situations when it's pay-back time.

"There are situations that you know very well that, if you appear before such a judge, the result is predetermined. At times I feel pity for my clients," he says.

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