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Strike by magistrates enters second month
Lance Guma, SW Radio Africa
November 30, 2007

The strike by magistrates and prosecutors, demanding better pay and working conditions, has now entered a second month with no sign of the dispute being resolved. Thousands of detainees in the country's remand prisons have been left stranded as senior prosecutors and regional magistrates battle to clear a massive backlog, worsened by the juniors who went on strike at the end of October. Even before the strike, the judicial system was sitting on a backlog of 350 000 cases.

Magistrates earn Z$16 million a month whereas the poverty datum line for an average family is over Z$23 million. This has forced them to demand a 900 percent wage hike. Justice Ministry officials are arguing the ministry has already exhausted it's budget for the year and a review can only be made in the next budget allocation. This however is in stark contrast to unplanned budget allocations, which have been poured into defence and security departments in the past by the same government.

In early November the government threatened to sack all striking magistrates if they ignored orders to go back to work. The Permanent Secretary in the Justice Ministry, David Mangota, said the magistrates had to go back to work before their grievances were addressed. Those on strike ignored the threats. The failure by government to address the concerns of the magistrates has seen many of them leaving the country for greener pastures in neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile detainees who, under the constitution, should only be held for 48 hours are now spending much longer in detention. As the country teeters on the edge of a complete economic meltdown, crime levels are rising and this has meant an increase in the number of people locked up in holding cells. Adding to an already complex scenario are political detainees from the opposition, who are being assaulted, tortured and then locked up. These activists are now spending even more time in custody as the regime hides behind the strike.

Lawyer Alec Muchadehama says the Justice Ministry is to blame for the crisis. They awarded regional magistrates salaries of Z$190-200 million a month and promised them luxury Mazda Eagle vehicles after they threatened to resign. This created a huge discrepancy with junior magistrates, prosecutors and other court staff who are still earning paltry salaries. Muchadehama says bridging the gap will prove impossible given the fact that government is broke. He says as lawyers they are spending the whole day milling around the courts with nothing to do. Meanwhile those on strike say they will report for work in January, the time frame government says it can review their salaries.

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