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Strong and swift measures required to stem the assault on the independence of the judiciary
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR)
April 02
, 2013

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) has been monitoring, with increasing concern, recent reportage in the state-controlled and other partisan media which, when read in its entirety, constitutes a professional and personal attack on a well respected judge of the High Court of Zimbabwe (Justice Charles Hungwe), as well as a broader and more disturbing assault on the independence and integrity of the judiciary and legal profession in Zimbabwe.

It is common knowledge that judges are unable to comment on cases that have been placed before them, except through their judgments. It is also starkly clear that the state-controlled and other partisan media outlets are abusing this position by reporting on such cases and attacking the person and integrity of a judge in an entirely unethical, contemptuous, and one-sided manner through which key facts of cases, the role of all court officials involved in the justice delivery chain (criminal and civil), and the rules and procedures of court have been completely misunderstood by lay-people and/or maliciously concealed and excluded. This has been done to mislead the public and incite unassuming spectators against the affected judge himself, as well as the entire judiciary.

What is of the greatest concern is that such hate speech and false reporting has not only been tolerated, but has in fact been encouraged to continue with complete impunity.

The principle of separation of powers is key in any democratic society. The independence and integrity of the judiciary is essential as a check on the vast powers of the executive and legislative arms of the state. For this reason the Constitution of Zimbabwe, as well as key regional and international instruments, protect this independence of the judiciary and the right of judicial officers to operate impartially, and without fear or favour.

Where judicial officers come under attack for performing their constitutional functions, there is a serious erosion of the protection that is offered by this independent arm and public confidence in the judiciary to act without fear or favour is severely undermined. Further, such blatant attacks on a judicial officer are calculated to – and will - have an immediate and chilling effect on all other judicial officers who feel that they will not be protected where they assert their independence and deliver justice in a professional and fearless manner.

There is a knock-on effect also in relation to the legal profession, as lawyers will similarly become fearful of vigorously and lawfully pursuing their clients’ rights in situations where the media and other actors will maliciously skew facts in order to incite unlawful action or retribution where the outcome of a case does not suit a particular personal or political agenda. Thus, an assault on a judicial officer affects not only the independence and integrity of the judiciary, but also that of the legal profession.

For such reasons, it is critical that the Chief Justice of Zimbabwe, the Judge President of the High Court and the Judicial Service Commission, together with the Law Society of Zimbabwe, must take urgent and robust measures to end the persecution of Justice Charles Hungwe, which has been seen through the defamatory assassination of his character, the malicious and false reporting, and the inciteful hate speech in the state-controlled media and other partisan outlets. This is not only a measure to protect the judicial officer concerned, but also one that is vital to reassure the entire bench at every level, as well as the legal profession in the public and private sector, that they will be free to undertake their professional and constitutional duties without fear or favour and not be victimized as a result of non-legal concerns and motives.

ZLHR is and will always remain committed to advocating for a professional and independent judiciary and legal profession that respect and comply with their constitutional obligations and rules of court so as to ensure public confidence in the administration of justice. However, we cannot remain silent when such a clear and sustained assault is launched to undermine the very essence of justice delivery in Zimbabwe.

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