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Zimbabwe: Independent Judge Flees to UK

Benjamin Paradza found himself on trial after issuing one too many judgements against the Mugabe government.
By Tendayi Mabasa
Benjamin Paradza, widely regarded as the last truly independent judge in Zimbabwe, has fled the country and is believed to be in hiding in the United Kingdom.

When President Robert Mugabe appointed Paradza - a hero of the liberation struggle against white minority rule - to the bench in 2000, he may have believed he was getting yet another compliant judge who would accommodate the political ends of the head of state by ignoring or bending the law.

But Paradza instead proved to be a turbulent and independent arbitrator whose judgments infuriated Mugabe.

When Paradza, 51, was called for sentencing in January this year, in a trial regarded as trumped-up by the United Nations, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Bar Association and other international movements, the judge disappeared. He is widely believed to have crossed the border to South Africa in a cargo truck, and made his way from there to Britain.

One judgement that particularly infuriated the president was an order Paradza gave to police in January 2003 to release from custody the elected mayor of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, Elias Mudzuri, a prominent member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

Mudzuri and 21 other MDC members had been arrested at a ratepayers’ meeting under a provision of the draconian Public Order and Security Act, POSA, requiring that police permission be obtained for any gathering of more than two people. Police can even break up a meeting between two people if they judge it to be “a threat to public order.”

Ironically, POSA is an almost exact replica of the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act used by Ian Smith, the prime minister of Rhodesia, to suppress black nationalists such as Paradza and Mugabe during the liberation struggle for Zimbabwe in the Sixties and Seventies.

“To understand this turn of events, one has first to understand the thinking behind the animal called POSA,” a human rights lawyer who did not want to be identified told IWPR. “POSA was specifically cobbled together to destroy the MDC. So when Paradza ordered Mudzuri’s release from police custody the battle lines had been drawn.

“Remember that Mudzuri had given Mugabe a special slap in the face by becoming the first executive mayor of Harare, thus making the nation’s capital a stronghold of the opposition party. Mudzuri became the first target of the campaign to destroy the MDC. Paradza was frustrating that bid. He had become ‘non-compliant’ and therefore had to be hounded out of office.”

Police defied Judge Paradza’s release order, but when Mayor Mudzuri appeared in court, the charges against him were dropped.

President Mugabe is unforgiving towards those who oppose his wishes, and the Mudzuri case was only one of several in which the judge annoyed him. Paradza also overturned a government notice evicting 54 white Zimbabwean farmers from their farms. He also ordered the government to issue a passport to Judith Todd, a veteran human rights and democracy opponent of the Ian Smith government, after Mugabe stripped her of Zimbabwean citizenship. Todd had proved to be as strident a critic of Mugabe’s human rights abuses as she was of Smith’s.

A month after Paradza ordered the release of Mudzuri, police raided the judge’s chambers, arrested him and threw him into prison, where he shared a cell with 15 other prisoners. “There were lice and mosquitoes, and the communal toilet did not flush,” he said. “The smell was unbearable. I felt humiliated and degraded.”

He was charged with corruption and obstructing the course of justice by trying to influence three fellow judges to release the passport of a man then awaiting trial on a murder charge. Russell Labuschagne, a business partner of Paradza, was recently tried and found guilty of murdering a poacher on his safari property, and has begun a 15-year jail sentence.

Paradza denied the charges made against him, and the United Nations’ rapporteur on human rights has said the judge is in reality being punished for judgements that were “unpalatable to the government”. Amnesty International issued a statement saying his arrest was “more likely to have been politically motivated” as part of efforts by the Zimbabwean authorities “to harass, intimidate and force out judges who are perceived to be in support of the political opposition”.

Paradza was released on bail of about 600 US dollars and ordered to forfeit his passport. He was subsequently found guilty on all charges, but failed to appear at the Zimbabwe High Court in January to hear his sentence, which was likely to be three years minimum rising to a possible ten years imprisonment. Judge Simpson Mutambanengwe issued a warrant for his immediate arrest.

But by then it was clear that Paradza was already out of the country.

“Paradza has been used to demonstrate to other members on the bench that if you don’t toe the line, if you don’t comply with the political leadership, then you will not receive protection,” said Arnold Tsunga, director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. “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.”

A British embassy spokesman in Harare questioned by the state-owned Herald newspaper refused to confirm or deny Paradza’s presence in Britain, but noted, “The United Kingdom will afford protection in cases where prosecution is being used as a tool of persecution against individuals.”

Tendayi Mabasa is the pseudonym of a Zimbabwean journalist.

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