By Christina Stucky –
A top delegation of international jurists has met President Robert Mugabe in Harare, seeking assurances that he would halt the intimidation of judges in Zimbabwe.
In a three-and-a-half-hour meeting with Mugabe on Friday, the jurists expressed concerns raised by Zimbabwean lawyers and members of the judiciary regarding the perceived breakdown of the rule of law and the erosion of the judiciary’s independence in Zimbabwe.
The high-level delegation of the International Bar Association (IBA) is in Zimbabwe to get a first-hand account of moves against the judiciary by Mugabe’s government, which have caused a worldwide uproar.
The meeting with Mugabe was seen by the IBA delegation as a positive indication of the Zimbabwean leader’s willingness to accept the judiciary’s independence.
A European Union diplomat said it was encouraging that Mugabe had received the delegation.
The meeting lent support to those in the EU urging engagement with the Zimbabwean leader rather than following Britain’s isolationist approach and the United States call for sanctions against the Mugabe government.
South African lawyer George Bizos, Nelson Mandela’s personal lawyer from the Rivonia trial days, and Ashwin Trikamjee, another South African lawyer, were part of the delegation.
The group is to draw up a first-hand account of what has been described as the “crisis in the judiciary”, which culminated in the government’s recent attempts to force certain supreme court judges into early retirement.
Mark Ellis, the IBA’s executive director, said the allegations of attacks on the independence of the country’s judiciary were “serious enough to demand serious attention”.
The delegation encouraged Mugabe to make statements that would reinforce the importance of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, regarding this as “vital to re-establish the confidence in the independent judiciary”, Ellis said.
He said Mugabe “spent considerable time presenting the historical case of some of the injustices committed against the people of Zimbabwe” and “spoke passionately” about the right to land as the cornerstone of the struggle for independence.
“Mugabe said Zimbabwe is still a young country going through a transition. Some errors were made but there was no doubt about the government’s commitment to assuring that there is an independent judiciary and that the law is respected,” Ellis said.
The government was “quite adamant” that the land issue should be regarded as a political matter and should therefore not be in the domain of the judiciary.
The delegation told Mugabe that it accepted the need for social justice, which included land reform, but that this aim needed to be accomplished without undermining the judiciary.
“The relationship between the executive and the judiciary is exceedingly important for enforcing that concept of social justice,” the delegates told Mugabe.
Mugabe gave assurances that the concept of an independent judiciary would be supported “and supported publicly”.
“Time will tell whether this will occur and we will watch this carefully,” Ellis said.
The seven-member delegation also met with Zimbabwean lawyers and judges, as well as with the justice minister Patrick Chinamasa.
Ellis described the talks with government officials as “frank and open” but said the delegation’s report would not “mince words”.
Describing the meeting with Chinamasa, he said that the delegates had conveyed to him “the significant concerns expressed by lawyers and judges here”.
While emphasising the importance of an independent judiciary as a fundamental pillar of a democracy, Ellis said the IBA delegation also sought reassurance from Zimbabwean officials on four policy measures:
- the halting of “what we see is intimidation of judges”, in particular the practice of forcing the resignation of judges;
- an end to “attacks and derogatory remarks against the judiciary and lawyers”;
- the assurance from the government that there would be no “manipulation in the selection and appointment of judges”; and
- the enforcement of the decisions of courts.
Relations between the judiciary and the executive have been strained for about a year, beginning with the farm invasions and the government’s refusal to enforce the court’s orders to evict the war veterans. But the relationship reached an absolute low with the government’s recent attempts to force Anthony Gubbay, the chief justice, into early retirement.According to Sternford Moyo, president of Zimbabwe’s Law Society, the agreement “opens a new chapter” in the relationship between government and the judiciary.Moyo said he believed that the tensions between the judiciary and government had been defused, but acknowledged that this “unprecedented attack is something from which we will need to recover”. The success of this recovery would depend on whether or not government would abide by its “renewed commitment to judicial independence”.Not all members of Zimbabwe’s legal profession share Moyo’s belief that the worst has passed.
Adrian de Bourbon, the chair of the Bar Council in Zimbabwe, is a senior advocate involved in negotiating the agreement between Gubbay and the government.
He regarded the recent attempts to force Gubbay into early retirement as part of a “concerted attack on the judiciary and a move to place on the judiciary people who support the ruling party”.
He is not alone in viewing the attacks on the judiciary, as well as on the independent press, as part of a strategy to secure a victory for Mugabe in next year’s presidential elections.
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