Lloyd Gumbo Senior Reporter—
A large omnibus General Laws Amendment Bill that will bring a vast swathe of legislation into line with the new Constitution was gazetted last week. Among the proposed amendments is one that gives the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission the mandate over voter registration and maintenance of the voters’ roll and another that bars Parliament from jailing people who offend it.
According to the Bill, Section 148 of the new Constitution fundamentally alters the powers of Parliament to defend its dignity and prestige in face of contempt of Parliament.
In August 2005 Parliament voted to jail the then opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) legislator for Chimanimani, Mr Roy Bennett, for assaulting then Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa during a debate on land reform.
Mr Bennett become the first person to be sent to jail by Parliament.
“The relevant portion of the constitutional provision provides that ‘no … Act may permit Parliament or its members or officers to impose any punishment in the nature of a criminal penalty, other than a fine, for breach of privilege or contempt of Parliament.’
“Before the new Constitution, Parliament had the option of requesting the Attorney-General (now Prosecutor-General) to launch a prosecution in respect of any offence over which Parliament could exercise its autonomous criminal jurisdiction.
“This amendment strengthens that provision in the light of the new constitutional restrictions on Parliament’s penal power for certain offences over which it had jurisdiction. For any imprisonable offence, Parliament might find it appropriate to invoke the aid of the Prosecutor-General rather than for it to try the offence itself, since it can only impose a fine,” reads the Bill.
The legislature is only allowed to fix a custodial sentence as an alternative if the accused defaults on paying the fine.
However, a detained person cannot be in prison for a period beyond the next sitting of a House after the sitting during which they were detained.
The Bill that seeks to amend at least 150 pieces of legislation cites Section 239 (c), (d) and (e) which gives the responsibility of registering voters, compiling voters’ roll and registers as well as proper custody and maintenance of the voters’ roll to ZEC.
The Electoral Commission is also given authority to “give instructions to persons in the employment of the State or of a local authority for the purpose of ensuring the efficient, free, fair, proper and transparent conduct of any election or referendum”.
The Gazette goes on to identify the RG’s Office as the most important employee of the State whose statutory responsibility was national registration and maintenance of registers of births, deaths, marriages and citizenship.
“The amendments are primarily concerned with bestowing the function of registration of voters upon the Commission while ensuring a proper co-ordination of this function with those of the Registrar-General as the custodian of the registers of births, deaths, marriages and citizenship.
“This amendment repeals the definition of ‘Registrar-General of Voters’, whose office will be abolished by these amendments,” states the Gazette.
In an interview with The Herald recently, ZEC chairperson Justice Rita Makarau welcomed the gazetting of the Bill saying it was a good development towards enabling the commission to exercise its mandate.
“We are really happy about this development because it allows the commission to exercise its mandate. It also puts beyond doubt that it is the commission’s mandate to register voters and it also clears the confusion that was there to the voters as well.
“We now hope that Parliament will speedily pass the amendments,” she said.