Law society meets with Chief Justice over torture, crackdown in Zimbabwe

Security forces in Zimbabwe are continuing to use torture and deadly force against people protesting against government restrictions and fuel hikes that have made petrol in that country the highest-priced in the world. Alarming pictures of security forces beating protesters shown round the world forced President Emmerson Mnangagwa, on an international visit to drum up foreign investment, to return before his original date, and take control of the situation. But little has changed since he arrived home earlier this week and the violent crackdown is continuing. In a rare move, the Law Society of Zimbabwe has met with the Chief Justice, Luke Malaba, to raise concerns about the way that judicial officers are handling cases relating to the crackdown. They told him it appeared the courts were biased and that justice was not being meted out.

  

[Photo Philimon Reuters]

As the brutal government crackdown continues in Zimbabwe, against protesters and anyone suspected of being in opposition to the ruling party, official presidential spokesperson George Charamba told the media that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was to blame for the sharp increase in violence that has marked the last few weeks in Zimbabwe. He also said that the brutality experienced by the people of the country was just a “foretaste of things to come”.

Since his return to Zimbabwe, however, the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, promised an investigation of security force behaviour in his absence, and appeared to criticize the actions of the security forces while he was away on a foreign tour aimed at encouraging the return of foreign investment.

But on the ground in Zimbabwe little has changed since he returned, and expectations that Mnangagwa would address the nation and call a halt to the violence have not been met.

As the number of dead and wounded mounts, the situation appears almost on a war footing for outsiders observing across Zimbabwe's borders. For example, a call has gone out for lawyers to report to their organisations if they are willing to help the many people due to appear in court, or who are in need of help following brutality at the hands of the security forces. Both church leaders and lawyers’ organisations have warned that security forces are conducting a “purge” and that “Zimbabwe is burning”. The country’s Catholic bishops said they were deeply concerned about the government’s failure to stabilize the economy and by the government’s intolerance for the views being expressed by the people “leading to their torture and even death”. And Zimbabwe’s Human Rights Commission has accused the country’s security forces of “systematic torture”.

In an explosive statement issued this week, the Law Society of Zimbabwe said that it had received reports from some members, and had in some cases observed first hand, that justice was not being done in the courts in the wake of the violence.

Pre-trial processes and court processes “appear to be collusively used to deny accused persons access to justice,” the LSZ said in its statement. Among other instances of how accused persons are being treated, the LSZ had received reports of mass trials, “fast-tracked trials”, the routine denial of bail, the routine dismissal of preliminary applications, refusal of access to medical treatment and the trial and detention of juveniles.

Reading between the lines of the carefully worded statement, it appears that the LSZ and its members are saying that some presiding officers are biased against the accused appearing before them in the wake of the violence, are riding roughshod over their rights and are thus perpetuating the violence and denial of rights prevalent in Zimbabwe at the moment. 

The society had also been told about abductions, assault, torture and denial of access to lawyers.

Deeply concerned about these reports, and what it had observed first-hand, the law society has met with the Chief Justice, Luke Malaba, “in his capacity as head of the judiciary and the head of the judicial service commission.”

The society explained their concerns to the CJ, who said that he “appreciated” their input. However, he felt he could not “intervene” without interfering with the independence of judicial officers. “He advised that lawyers should resort to the legal remedies that are already available like appealing or applying for review of impugned decisions or actions.”

The LSZ said the CJ had admitted that there could be “an emerging pattern to the decisions and actions by judicial officers”, but said this could be the result of the ‘similarity of facts and circumstances” surrounding most of the cases. He also denied that either he or the JSC had issued any directive to judicial officers to deny bail or to rule in a particular way when hearing matters relating to the violent crackdown.

The society advised its members to continuing using available legal remedies, in the hope that some of the problems its members are detecting could be “judicially resolved”.

The society added that the situation remained of concern and it encouraged members to fully document all “blatant disregard to established practice” that they should come across. Reports of such action would help the society in its “intervention role”.

In view of the crisis, the society has called an extraordinary meeting scheduled for this coming Monday, 28 January.

The SADC-Lawyers Association is just as concerned, describing the situation as “the most unexpected and wholly unfathomable repeat” of the post-election violence of 2018. In its statement, SADC-LA said it was the right of citizens to assemble and protest at what they considered legitimate grievances. And it was the responsibility of government to facilitate peaceful demonstrations and then to give the lead in conflict resolution, all without resorting to any form of violence. “We are saddened to note that once again the government seems to have failed in this regard”, as demonstrated by the use of excessive force, lethal weapons and the deployment of the army.

The country suffered from deep-seated problems which required an “intense, courageous and fearless national dialogue by Zimbabweans.” Neither the departure of former president, Robert Mugabe, nor the subsequent elections held last year provided the solution needed. “The people of Zimbabwe have serious grievances borne out of a country that has lost its way,” said the statement.

SADC-LA called for the president to initiate a national dialogue, for the immediate end to violence and killings and the interruption of essential services including internet access. The organization also called for the immediate investigation of violence and urged that the SADC region and the African Union help lead a process to help Zimbabweans find a lasting resolution.

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1. Read the full statement by the Law Society of Zimbabwe here >>>
2. Read the full statement by the SADC Lawyers Association here >>>