Political interests impede value of inquests

HARARE – This week, the State ordered an inquest into the suspicious death of former Cabinet minister and diplomat, Amos Midzi, who was found lifeless at the back of his car two years ago at his Marirangwe farm, a few kilometres outside the capital.

His death came after he had been suspended from Zanu PF on allegations of being part of a coterie of politicians allied to former vice president Joice Mujuru, who were accused of plotting an insurrection against President Robert Mugabe.

Midzi was initially suspected to have taken his own life but his family and allies could not rule out foul play.

After two years of waiting, Zimbabweans might soon get to know how the former chairperson of Zanu PF Harare Province met his tragic death after a Harare prosecutor notified of the State’s intention to open an inquest into Midzi’s death.

But before even the inquest commences, there are very few people who still have faith in the process because none of the inquests done since independence in 1980 have shed light into the causes of the deaths.

In the strictest sense of the word, an inquest is supposed to give answers to questions around a person’s death to bring about closure.

Online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, defines an inquest as a judicial inquiry in common law jurisdictions held to determine the cause of a person’s death.

It is conducted by a judge, jury or government official. It may or may not require an autopsy by a coroner or medical examiner.

Generally, inquests are only conducted when deaths are sudden or unexplained and they may be called at the behest of a coroner, judge, and prosecutor or, in some jurisdictions, upon a formal request from the public.

In terms of the provisions of the Inquests Act (Chapter 7: 07), the death of any person who is suspected to have died through violence or otherwise, than in a natural way, can be subjected to an inquest.

In Zimbabwe, countless inquests have been conducted on suspicious deaths of Cabinet ministers and other top executives over the past 37 years but these could not provide satisfactory answers to the many questions their families and friends had.

The country has been relying on expatriates for forensic expertise, a development which has brought about a lot of complications because of the adversarial nature of the country’s legal system.

There have been some mysterious deaths of Cabinet ministers and other high-ranking politicians whose investigations have been shaky or worse still not concluded to-date.

Rumour and speculation have swirled around the “accidental” deaths of former Defence minister Moven Mahachi, former Industry and Commerce minister Chris Ushewokunze, army captain Edwin Nleya and former Zanu PF political commissars Border Gezi and Elliot Manyika.

In 2002, there was the case of Cain Nkala who was abducted and found in a shallow grave just outside Bulawayo; Zororo Duri appointed ambassador to Cuba was killed in a car accident on the Mutare-Harare road in 1996 and Edward Chindori-Chininga — the outspoken Guruve South Member of Parliament was involved in a road accident that claimed his life in June 2013.

Before 1980, there were other cases such as that of Hebert Chitepo, who was killed in March 1975 by a car bomb in Lusaka.

Several investigations have been hampered by lack of evidence, and theories about the motive and perpetrator abound; Josiah Tongogara was killed in a car crash in Mozambique in 1979 while on his way to Zimbabwe, six days after the Lancaster House agreement was concluded.

His vehicle rammed an army truck parked on the side of the road.

Recent inquest requests of suspicious deaths include those of the late former State Procurement Board executive chairperson and senior professional bureaucrat Charles Kuwaza; CMED board chairperson Lesslie John Denn and; decorated liberation war icon, retired general Solomon Mujuru, who died in a mysterious house inferno in 2011.

Although there have been recent civilian inquests that include the stampede which left 11 people dead at the Walter Magaya-led Prophetic Healing and Deliverance all-night prayer in KweKwe, most of them are of a political nature, involving politicians.

But have the judicial inquests into some of these suspicious deaths uncovered anything?

Human rights lawyer, Dewa Mavhinga, said the judicial inquests into highly suspicious deaths of cabinet ministers and top executives over the past years “have not uncovered much because in most of the cases those suspected of having being involved in the deaths include state agents or state-sponsored individuals.”

“In those circumstances the judiciary might be intimidated from doing a thorough job, or, in cases where security agents are implicated the police, as part of the security forces, would be reluctant or unwilling to thoroughly investigate such cases,” he said.

While she is not very familiar with the outcomes of high profile inquests, legislator and lawyer Jessie Majome is concerned about the negative effect that Zimbabwe’s backwardness in forensic pathology and science generally has on quality of those processes.

“The State’s failure to have such technology is a senseless scandal that may be a deliberate politically-motivated ploy. I have a motion pending in Parliament on GBV to push for such technology. I have no doubt that political interests impede the probation value of inquests, which are conducted when no evidence on the face of it implicates anyone in a sudden death,” she said.

“The adversarial criminal justice system itself in my view doesn’t have a bearing on the inquests’ value,” added Majome.

She added that because of primitive and inept police investigations police that are subject to political manipulation are the problem “as they cause failed investigations that generate the need for inquests which are doomed from the start because of the operating framework.”

Activist Farai Maguwu said it was very hard for the judicial inquests to unearth anything significant given that most of the suspected “State-assisted’”deaths were a result of in-fighting within Zanu PF and the party is still in power.

“Most witnesses would choose to remain silent or risk their own lives. I however think in future, when there is a change of government people will be courageous enough to come forward with information.

“I encourage even those close to these things to write down what they saw and keep the information archived somewhere for future references,” said Maguwu.

“I interviewed the late Edgar Tekere while doing my graduate studies in 2005 and I was shocked by the number of assassination attempts he claimed to have survived since independence,” added Maguwu.

Political commentator, Vivid Gwede, thinks it is the manner in which the authorities have conducted some of these inquests that has raised suspicions.

“Sometimes these investigations are hurried or the results totally concealed as if there is something to hide. As the popular saying goes, justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

“This is important when the circumstances of the deaths are shrouded in intrigue. More often than not, bereaved families are left alleging foul play,” said Gwede

In practice, all sudden deaths that occur in circumstances that arouse a reasonable suspicion of foul play are invariably subjected to an inquest.

MDC spokesperson, Obert Gutu, a lawyer by profession, said in politically-sensitive deaths, inquests can become highly emotionally charged and indeed, it is not uncommon for the presiding judicial officer to be placed under insurmountable pressure from the powers that be in order to arrive at a particular decision after the inquest hearing.

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