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Zimbabwe’s Judges Under Fire

Mugabe’s Comments Undermine Judicial Independence

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe returned to Harare this week from an unexplained trip to the United Arab Emirates that triggered widespread speculation about his health, and even rumors that he had died. 

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe arrives home from abroad at the capital's main airport in Harare, Zimbabwe, September 3, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

But on arrival, he put rumors to rest as he addressed the ruling ZANU-PF party’s youth league and launched a blistering verbal attack on the country’s judiciary. In apparent reference to a High Court decision to allow 18 opposition political parties that are calling for electoral reforms to conduct a protest in late August, Mugabe said: “They [the judges] dare not be negligent in their decisions when requests are made by people who want to demonstrate.” He claimed the judges gave permission in “full knowledge” that the protests could be violent, and said their decision was taken in “disregard to the peace of this country.”

This is not the first time Mugabe has attempted to interfere with the judiciary. In 2000, after judges ruled that the government’s controversial land reform program was unlawful, Mugabe called the judges guardians of “white racist commercial farmers.” In 2005, when High Court Justice Tendai Uchena ruled that Roy Bennet, a jailed opposition member of parliament, was eligible to contest the upcoming elections from prison, Mugabe described the decision as “stupid.” Justice Uchena subsequently reversed his own judgment and barred Bennet from participating in elections. 

Mugabe’s government has also undermined Zimbabwe’s judiciary by disregarding High Court orders, and making frequent public statements attacking both the judiciary in general as well as individual judges.

His latest comments not only seem intended to have a chilling effect on judges – who will think twice before making similar rulings in the future – but appear to tacitly endorse the actions of the police who on August 26, 2016 violently cracked down on the peaceful protests. His statements also undermine Zimbabwe’s international human rights law obligations to respect due process and judicial independence under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Zimbabwe has ratified.

Mugabe needs to stop interfering in the judiciary’s independence, so that the courts can play their crucial role in a democratic society. Zimbabweans have the right to peaceful protest and expressing their views, and judges should not be constrained in enforcing those rights.

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