No improvement in state of rule of law in Zimbabwe – experts

The state of the rule of law in Zimbabwe has not improved and the culture of impunity on the part of the police and the state security forces remains unchanged since the signing of the Global Political Agreement in 2008, according to a report by international legal experts.

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The report, "A Place in the Sun", follows an investigative mission to Zimbabwe late last year by the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association, the Bar Council, the Bar Human Rights Committee, and Avocats Sans Frontières. The mission was told by interviewees that the state of the rule of law had actually grown worse.

Incidents of extra-judicial killings, kidnapping, torture and other serious human rights abuses have been pervasive in Zimbabwe for years but assumed epidemic proportions during the Presidential run-off elections of June 2008. Such human rights abuses continue to occur and they also remain un-investigated by the authorities.

The report notes that the culture of impunity among the police and security forces has deteriorated, with the army appearing to have extended its operations to unlawful diamond extraction and trading in the diamond fields of Marange. The Kimberley Process, an international initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds, recently allowed Zimbabwe to resume trading its gems from the controversial diamond fields.

In a disconcerting finding, the report notes that “by far the majority of the senior judiciary remains fundamentally compromised by state patronage, grants of land and other gifts given to them by the former government. The present government
has not sought to claw-back such inducements from the senior judiciary nor has there been any policy initiative directed at re-establishing the integrity of the senior judiciary in the eyes of the public.”

Magistrates, who for years have endured threats and intimidation, including arrests and prosecution when they displease the authorities, continue to face the same adversities in the line of duty. In one case cited in the report, a magistrate in Eastern Zimbabwe was himself prosecuted by the authorities as a result of having granted bail to the Deputy Minister designate for Agriculture, Mr Roy Bennett. However, their resilience under such difficult conditions has made them unsung heroes in the eyes of many ordinary Zimbabweans.

The report also detailed how the physical infrastructure for the teaching of law is crumbling, stating that "the mission saw for itself the dilapidated state of the Law Faculty of the University of Zimbabwe." The mission was also "deeply disturbed by accounts it received that the Central Intelligence Organisation had infiltrated the student body in the Law Faculty, with the result that the content of lectures and open debate in seminars was circumscribed by fear of the consequences of candour."

Encouragingly, though, the Law Society of Zimbabwe continues to represent its membership against a background of intimidation and harassment of, in particular, human rights lawyers.

“The Law Society stands out as an organisation prepared vocally and committed actively to oppose measures which are anathema to the rule of law and to support its membership in the discharge of their duties as lawyers,” the report observes.

The mission also found that access to justice for indigent people facing criminal prosecution is virtually non-existent because the legal aid system is ”so starved of funds that the Legal Aid Directorate is itself on the verge of collapse”.

The mission concluded that there has been no improvement and quite possibly a further decline in respect for the rule of law since the signing of the Global Political Agreement.

It recommended the end of the culture of impunity on the part of the police and state security forces; a transparently composed and genuinely independent Judicial Services Commission with the power to appoint all judges, magistrates and the Attorney General; ensuring lawyers can practise without harassment or intimidation; and providing indigent defendants in criminal proceedings with free representation by a properly qualified lawyer.