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Sunday, 21 May 2006

Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Defenders; High Court Judge Benjamin Paradza

Former High Court Judge Benjamin Paradza fears for his wife and three children who are still under the surveillance of security agents in Zimbabwe.

He has reason to be afraid.

Since coming to power in 1980, President Robert G. Mugabe's government has always dealt severely with opposition political parties and their supporters, real or perceived.

In April 1983, for example, the regime's Fifth Brigade military unit targeted defenseless civilians, who Mugabe referred to as supporters of dissidents, and subjected thousands of them to severe beatings and destroyed their homes. The Fifth Brigade went on to murder more than 2,000 civilians.

The military unit would routinely round up dozens, or even hundreds, of civilians and march them to a central place, such as a school or a communal borehole. There, the civilians were forced to sing songs praising the ruling political party, Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), while at the same time were beat with sticks. The gatherings invariably ended with the public execution of officials from the opposition political party, Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU).

The regime's heavy handedness and hostility towards political opponents or ordinary Zimbabweans who disagreed with how ZANU was running the country did not end with the signing of the Unity Accord between ZANU and ZAPU in 1987. The accord led to ZAPU merging with ZANU and the formation of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and was part of efforts to stop the mass killings of civilians by Mugabe's Fifth Brigade in the Ndebele provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands during the early to late 80's.

The regime has used its parliamentary majority to amend the constitution more than 20 times to tighten Mugabe's hold on power and quash all forms of dissent -- the most notable amendment being the abolition of the prime minister's position, which led to the creation of an executive presidency in 1987. Repressive legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (2002) has made it a crime to practice journalism without a government license.

Paradza did what all judges in Zimbabwe are supposed to do: He looked at the cases before him and interpreted what the law said.

In the 1990s, he allowed Econet, an independent telephone services provider, to set up a mobile telephone network contrary to the regime's intention to retain control of who can have access to or provide telephone services. In 2000, Paradza declared the land reform program illegal and, in the same year, he ruled that the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation's monopoly on the airwaves was illegal.

The following year, he declared as unconstitutional a ban Mugabe imposed on challenging in court the results of the much-contested 2000 parliamentary elections.

In July 2002, Paradza acquitted a journalist in a media test case and, in the same month, he sentenced Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa to three months in jail for contempt of court because the minister had failed to appear in court to respond to charges relating to his criticism of the High Court.

The following year, Paradza ordered the release of Elias Mudzuri, mayor of Harare, and a member of opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and 21 other MDC members who had been arrested for holding a town meeting under a provision of the draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which dictates that police permission must be obtained for any gathering of more than two people if the police declares the meeting to be "a threat to public order."

Mudzuri signaled that the nation's capital had become an MDC stronghold when he became the first executive mayor of Harare. He also became the first target in a campaign by the Mugabe regime to destroy the MDC.

By being impartial and refusing to be influenced by outside forces, Paradza was setting himself up for a major confrontation with Mugabe's regime.

And it wasn't long before the regime made its move.

A month after Paradza ordered Mudzuri's release, police raided the judge's chambers, arrested him for allegedly obstructing the course of justice and for allegedly trying to influence three fellow judges to release the passport of a business partner awaiting trial on a murder charge.

Paradza became the first serving judge in Zimbabwe's history to be arrested for alleged misconduct.

Under Zimbabwean law, a sitting High Court judge cannot be arrested before an inquiry into the alleged criminal misconduct has been set up and has established the truthfulness of such allegations. In a subsequent application to the Supreme Court on his arrest, the Supreme Court ruled that the arrest had indeed been improper and that a commission of inquiry had to be established before any action could be taken by law enforcement agents.

Human rights organizations say Paradza's arrest was politically motivated and signals ongoing efforts on the part of the Mugabe regime to harass, intimidate and force out judges who have handed down judgments which are contrary to the regime's policies and who are perceived to be supporting the political opposition.

In 2000, the regime forced the resignation of Supreme Court Chief Justice Antony Gubbay following rulings that had gone against the government. A number of senior judges, like Judge Fergus Blackie, have also been forced to leave the bench following political pressure, physical and verbal attacks, arrests and other means of intimidation and harassment. Others have fled the country after receiving death threats for ruling against the interests of Mugabe's regime.

Paradza will remember his days in prison for a long time.

On his experiences in jail, he said: "There were lice and mosquitoes, and the communal toilet did not flush. The smell was unbearable. I felt humiliated and degraded."

Dato Param Cumaraswamy, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, expressed grave concern over the criminal charges and their implications on judicial independence and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.

"What is common and very conspicuous about the alleged charges against Justice Paradza and retired Judge Blackie is that the principle witnesses to prove the alleged charges are fellow judges. This is pitting judges against judges and setting the members of the judiciary on a collision course between what will be seen as the independents and the complaints," Cumaraswamy said.

When Paradza was released on bail, he fled the country, first to South Africa and then to Britain before being granted refuge in New Zealand. He could not settle in South Africa because South Africa refuses to acknowledge that Mugabe's regime is violating human rights laws. South Africa also has an extradition treaty with Zimbabwe and has been routinely sending Zimbabweans, including asylum seekers, back into the hands of Mugabe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization.

Britain would not allow Paradza to submit an application for political asylum because asylum laws meant he had to seek refuge in South Africa. Nor would the country allow him to accept a 40,000 pound-a-year university fellowship in London.

Arnold Tsunga, director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said the Mugabe regime arrested and imprisoned Paradza to demonstrate to other members on the bench that if they did not comply with the political leadership, they would not receive protection from the state.

"To decide whether he received a fair trial, look at the way the case started. He was arrested in chambers by a constable in a manner that is highly irregular, and he was humiliated in the process of being arrested.

"By running away, I think he is saying he did not get a fair trial. He felt his colleagues won't have enough clout to withstand political pressure, and I guess it explains why he's on the run," Tsunga said.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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