Things fall apart, but the judges rule

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The Independent Online

With Zimbabwe's one-party government now in the dock, it is one of society's crustiest pillars - the judiciary - which has proved the most robust.

So clearly have the courts distanced themselves from the constitution-changing, law-breaking regime of President Robert Mugabe, that the leader of Zimbabwe's liberation war veterans quite loses his cool at the mere mention of a judge. "They can go to hell,'' said Chenjirai "Hitler" Hunzvi who officially heads the motley team of land invaders who have been terrorising white farmers since February.

Dr Hunzvi, speaking in reaction to Thursday's High Court judgment that the occupations were unlawful, said the judges were "part of the system which hanged us when we fought for independence". He added: "They think they are above the executive president. Who do they think they are?''

That the invaders are still camping on some 500 farms is due to a government order that the police should not intervene. But that is not the courts' fault, said human rights lawyer and opposition activist, Brian Kagoro. "We are now living in a country where civil society is characterised as the enemy. Given that, the judiciary have shown a level of autonomy that is commendable.''

President Mugabe and senior members of government have been clashing for years with the High and Supreme Courts - a trend that has continued though the president has all the power he needs to fill the benches.

Charles Goredema, a lecturer at Harare's law faculty, said that despite the existence of a judicial services commission, the president has the last word on which five judges sit in the Supreme Court and which 19 preside over the High Court. "Some judges are visibly pro-establishment but they are a minority. The pool from which they are drawn is steeped in a culture of independence. We do not have juries so the judge cannot take cover behind anyone.''

Many high-profile judgments have gone against the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) and its members in recent years. The former president, Canaan Banana, was found guilty of sodomy in 1998. He is now awaiting appeal. Last year, Mr Mugabe called on the Supreme Court's judges to resign after they ruled that the military had illegally detained two journalists. They refused and are still there.

Time and again, judges' judgments go far beyond guilty-or-not-guilty verdicts, into the realm of proclamations about the duties of society and the right to freedom of expression. Even the police, while ignoring the order to intervene against land invaders, are true to the workings of the system. They said on Friday they would appeal against the judgment that obliges them to clear the farms.

Twenty years after the end of white rule, Zimbabwe is every bit the former colony. Things may be falling apart, but the belief that everything should be seen to be done correctly is as robust as the cast iron red pillar boxes on the Harare streets.

Jeff Feltoe, a senior lecturer at Harare's cash-strapped faculty - where a young blind student made a beeline for the Independent on Sunday reporter asking if anyone in Britain could send a braille transcriber - said Zimbabweans had enormous pride in their law. "Of course there are rotten judges and poor lawyers. But the students, some of them from rural villages, have to struggle to complete the four-year course. Most of them are fiercely competitive, brilliant, and proud to enter the profession.''