Judges 'in danger for their talents' as dictatorship reigns

Manipulation of court rolls; selective prosecution; and packing of the bench of superior courts are outrageous techniques which provide repressive governments with an opportunity to subvert the law, while simultaneously maintaining a semblance of respect for the judiciary and other institutions.

These are not my words. They are former High Court judge Michael Gillespie’s. The judge said this before he resigned in 2001 due to political pressure on him to go amid ruthless purges of the judiciary in Zimbabwe.

Gillespie was trying to capture what was going on in relation to the judiciary.

The country was engulfed in a political storm and judges were caught in the mayhem. Most independent-minded and professional judges were swept away and were replaced by those whom President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF deemed pliable.

In fact, Gillespie went further: "A judge who finds himself in the position where he is called upon to administer the law only against political opponents of the government and not against government supporters, faces the challenge to his conscience: that is whether he can still consider himself to sit as an independent judge in an impartial court."

Gillespie was part of a group of mainly white judges who were forced out in 2001 by Mugabe’s sclerotic regime and Zanu-PF anarchists, who considered them too autonomous and inconvenient for leaders bent on scorched earth policies which not only violated the Constitution and laws of the land, but also ripped apart the rule of law.

Around about the same time, former chief justice Anthony Gubbay, who was also forced to resign in 2001, had complained: "Wicked things have been done, and continue to be done. They must be stopped. Common-law crimes have been, and are being, committed with impunity. Laws made by Parliament have been flouted by the government."

Gubbay served as chief justice from 1990 to 2001. He was replaced with current chief justice Godfrey Chidyausiku whose bench has often come under fierce attack by those who accuse it of being brazenly partisan.

During the political turmoil which began in 2000 with the chaotic and often violent farm invasions as Mugabe battled for political survival, there were also other judges who voiced concern about the breakdown of the rule of law.

One of them was Justice James Devittie. At one time he said: "The law must be obeyed for the wellbeing of us all." Devittie was also forced to go.

The reason I’m recalling these events is because of the continued political pressure on judges to deliver rulings favourable to Mugabe and his party. Those who rule against them find themselves either facing calculated hostility, denunciation or threats of retribution. That’s what happens in dictatorships.

Judges in Zimbabwe are still "in danger for their talents" as CF Forsyth once observed and wrote in reference to the South African situation during apartheid.

Last week Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai brought to the fore once again the issue of the separation of powers and independence of the judiciary. His remarks on judges fuelled the debate about judicial reform to guarantee efficient and professional administration of justice.

Tsvangirai attacked Supreme Court judges after they nullified the election of Parliament Speaker Lovemore Moyo in remarks which sent shock waves across the judiciary. He said the ruling violated the principle of the separation of powers between the executive, legislature and the judiciary.

The premier then dismissed the judges as "Zanu-PF politicians masquerading as judges". Moyo also slammed them, saying they were always keen to please their "master".

Zanu-PF hardliners want the two prosecuted for criminal contempt of court.

Although Tsvangirai’s and Moyo’s statements were clearly over the top, they reflected what has been going on since 2000. This does not justify vicious attacks on judges, but shows what happens when politicians manipulate judicial processes, judges and courts for myopic ends. – TimesLive