Purge of judge slammed

HARARE - A fresh purge of the judiciary is unfolding as Zimbabweans hurtles towards a crucial harmonised election anytime soon pitting two fierce political opponents — Zanu PF and MDC.

Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku has reportedly opened an inquiry into the conduct of High Court judge Justice Charles Hungwe in the wake of allegations by the State-controlled media and some high-ranking Zanu PF officials of misconduct and negligence levelled against him.

Chidyausiku reportedly summoned Justice Hungwe to his chambers on Wednesday to enquire about the allegations so he could prepare a report for submission to President Robert Mugabe.

According to Section 87 of the Zimbabwean Constitution, the president can set-up a tribunal of at least three members to investigate the conduct of a sitting judge on the recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission, (JSC).

In terms of the Constitution, if the president gets the report and feels the matter should be investigated, he immediately appoints a tribunal to inquire into it.

If the question of removing a judge from office has been referred to a tribunal, the judge shall be suspended from performing functions of his office until the president, on the recommendation of the tribunal of the JSC, revokes the suspension or the judge is removed from office.

The unfolding plot would likely see Justice Hungwe suspended from his duties while he faces a probe from a tribunal to be set by Mugabe, analysts say.

There is a feeling Justice Hungwe — who last month ordered the release of human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa and granted a warrant to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, (Zacc) to search the offices of three Zanu PF Cabinet ministers accused of underhand dealings — is being unjustly victimised.

Of late, Justice Hungwe has been subjected to a barrage of attacks in the State-controlled media over his alleged misconduct, including missing court records and failure to sentence a murder convict who has been awaiting sentence since 2003.

He has also been attacked over the manner in which he allegedly handled a civil matter over ownership of a house, a smear campaign which analysts say is meant to scandalise and vilify him.

Deputy minister of Justice and Legal Affairs Obert Gutu condemned the attacks on Justice Hungwe, telling local media that this was part of a Zanu PF plot to force the bench to toe its line.

“The office of a judge is a sacrosanct judicial office that has to be held in high esteem by all right-thinking people in society,” Gutu said.

“We cannot and, indeed, we should not accept a situation whereby certain scandalous, notorious and dubious characters with sinister agendas are permitted to publicly ridicule, lampoon and slander any of our judicial officers.

“We should never allow a situation where every Tom, Dick and Harry is given an opportunity to publicly slander and savage members of the judiciary.”

Playwright Cont Mhlanga said “an attack on anyone by the State-controlled media is not an attack by the media but an attack by the inner circle of the ruling class of Zimbabwe.

“Once you see the attacks flooding the media gate then be warned that some dangerous liquid is flowing towards the corridors of power or even the State house and that some young intelligent fire fighters on behalf of those in power are using the media to either build a wall, close the leaking hole or mop the liquid. Let those that have ears hear,” said Mhlanga.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and the Law Society of Zimbabwe have called for intervention to stop the persecution of the judge.

ZLHR said in a statement, the persecution of Justice Hungwe affects not only the independence and integrity of the judiciary, but also that of the legal profession.

The lawyers’ group called on Chief Justice Chidyausiku, Judge President of the High Court George Chiweshe and JSC, together with the Law Society of Zimbabwe, to take decisive action.

“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 victimised as a result of non-legal concerns and motives,” the ZLHR said.

Academic Rashweat Mukundu told the Daily News the recent attacks are a serious threat to judicial independence and a statement to Justice Hungwe and others that they have to toe the line.

“The State-controlled media is without doubt pursuing the judge in a vindictive manner and without basis,” Mukundu said.

“The Chief Justice must do something to protect judges; we are essentially seeing a repeat of the assaults on the judiciary as in the Anthony Gubbay era.”

Theatre producer Daves Guzha said the same people complaining about Hungwe’s conduct of holding a hearing at his farm, used to wake up the same judges during the middle of the night to hear cases on land disputes.

“When they were doing ‘hondo yeminda’ the State could wake up the same judges with no compunction whatsoever and ask them to preside wherever they are,” Guzha said.

“Now that Justice Hungwe has done the same thing for a perceived enemy, it becomes anathema?”

Law Society’s president Lloyd Mhishi said the Bar Association was disturbed by this “onslaught”, adding the media attacks on Justice Hungwe have “mischievous intent.”

“The LSZ does not entertain the view that the judiciary and judicial actions are beyond scrutiny,” he said.

“We, however hold the view that any criticism of the judiciary should be measured, tampered, based on fact and law. Any attack on the judiciary should not be actuated by malice and calculated to bring the institution into disrepute.”

McDonald Lewanika, the director of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition told a foreign radio station on Thursday that “the persecution of Justice Hungwe sends out a clear message that there are people who are not interested in the independence of the judiciary and they are not interested in judges who operate independently without following the whims of certain political actors.

“We believe this is the reason why Justice Hungwe is being vilified. Because he is doing what is right.”

Lewanika said this is all part of a plan to “clean” the judges’ bench before the next elections; something Zanu PF has successfully done in the past to maintain its control of the country.

“If you look into the past, in 2002, we had a series of judges forced off the bench in a similar situation as we see now with Justice Hungwe. They were perceived to be independent and impartial, whereas those presiding over the State are only comfortable with a judiciary that is malleable to the wishes of the State,” Lewanika said adding: “There is now clearly an attempt to ensure the bench is fully controlled by people who are amiable to the president.”

Contributing to the debate, Grey Mukondo said as Zimbabweans we gain nothing, but confusion, from undermining our judiciary.

“Justice Hungwe is a war veteran, who at one time served as chairperson of the War Veterans Association,” Mukondo said. “There can never be a question of him undermining our sovereignty as insinuated in the last two Herald articles.

“We are making many mistakes in our carriage of justice, with police rushing to arrest people without solid evidence and the courts releasing these suspects. It would seem that anyone who questions these miscarriages automatically becomes a sell-out.

“Let us grow up. We belong to a political party with a solid history. We have always upheld principles beyond expediency. The matter brings to mind the bungled suspension and subsequent dismissal of Sobusa Gula-Ndebele from the post of Attorney General.

“We had all sorts of unsubstantiated accusations levelled against him, which allegations were later thrown out by the courts. Why do we fear our own children?” Mukondo asked.

Precious Shumba, a civic leader said the “criminals” that have sanctioned the persecution of Justice Hungwe are really cowards.

“They are hiding behind their offices to wage a shallow campaign of vilification against the learned Judge,” he said.

“All the progressive forces should rally behind our judiciary and expose the people running this campaign to undermine our judiciary.”

He said those persecuting Hungwe should come clean on the charges.

“Is this an attempt at judicial cleansing to have only the compliant judges on the bench ahead of the elections?”

Shumba said Justice Hungwe, like all judges, is human and can make some professional blunders.

“However, there are processes that should be taken to correct a situation once it has been noted. In the interest of justice, people should be sentenced, once convicted of their crimes, rather than for a person to be kept in the dark.

“The State-controlled media acts on behalf of their partisan masters who want everyone to toe the party line, irrespective of whether or not they are in the wrong. In my view, the judiciary is being crucified for its role against corruption.

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