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Zimbabwe Constitutional Court May Lose its Independence

Parliament Amends Constitution, Allows President to Appoint Top Judges

Zimbabwe’s ruling party is now grabbing power from its Constitutional Court.

Zimbabwe’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, on Tuesday night voted to amend the constitution to give the president unilateral authority to appoint the constitutional court’s leadership – the chief justice, deputy chief justice, and judge president. Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party garnered the two-thirds majority needed to approve the constitutional amendment in the face of objections from the opposition.

The amendment, which severely threatens the independence of the judiciary, now awaits approval by the Senate and President Robert Mugabe’s signature. The Senate and Mugabe should reject the amendment, which will further erode the rule of law under this and future administrations.

This is not the first time that Mugabe and his government have sought to weaken the judiciary. In 2000, when on a number of occasions judges ruled that the government’s controversial land reform program was unlawful, Mugabe sought to dismiss the judges as guardians of “white racist commercial farmers.” The government then used various strategies to bring the judiciary under its direction and control, including a combination of verbal attacks, threats, and inducements to make the judges more malleable.

The government further undermined Zimbabwe’s judiciary by disregarding a series of high court orders and making frequent public pronouncements attacking both the judiciary in general and individual judges. For example, in 2005 when Justice Tendai Uchena ruled that Roy Bennet, a jailed opposition member of parliament, was eligible to run for office in the March 2005 elections from jail, Mugabe described the decision as “stupid” and told ZANU-PF supporters to ignore the ruling. Uchena subsequently reversed his own judgment and disqualified Bennet from participating in the election.

By rejecting the National Assembly’s amendment, the Senate would send a strong message in support of judicial independence. That would provide a measure of assurance not only to ordinary Zimbabweans, but to all those in the country and abroad who recognize Zimbabwe’s need for an independent judiciary. 

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