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Zimbabwe Tightens Control on Justices - 2002-06-06

The Zimbabwe government has denied a supreme court justice permission to attend a meeting of the International Bar Association, the world's top body of jurists. The rebuke is the latest example of the increasing tension between the legal profession and the government of Robert Mugabe.

Until a year ago, Zimbabwe's judiciary had a reputation for independence. When President Robert Mugabe ordered invasions of white owned farms, the supreme court issued a ruling declaring the invasions illegal. But that ruling is considered the beginning of the end for Zimbabwe's independent judiciary. Shortly afterward, Chief Justice Antony Gubbay was forced to resign in the face of death threats by Mugabe's supporters.

Since then six other judges from the higher courts have quit and been replaced by Mugabe supporters. However, Supreme Court Justice Wilson Sandura has refused to step down, despite pressure from the government. And it is he who has been denied permission to attend the meeting of the International Bar Association in Malawi.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa issued the denial. On Thursday, in a letter to Judge Sandura published in the state-controlled press, the justice minister accused the judge of seeking to set himself up as a rival political authority.

Legal sources have said the judge is unlikely to react to the accusation.

Though he is not in favor with the Mugabe government, Judge Sandura has a reputation among Zimbabwe's lawyers as the last independent mind on the Supreme Court. He has consistently given minority judgments in contentious cases, strongly disagreeing with the rest of his colleagues.

There is growing international concern about the state of Zimbabwe's legal system.

Earlier this week, the International Bar Association objected to the arrest of two top officials of the Zimbabwe Law Society, Sternford Moyo and Wilbert Mapombere.

The association expressed its shock at the arrests and said the Zimbabwe Law Society was respected around the world for its integrity.

Police have accused the two men of writing letters to the British High Commission and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change urging rebellion against the government. The two men have told the court the letters were forgeries.

They were charged with subversion on Thursday and freed from prison after paying bail and surrendering their travel documents. Their case is scheduled to be heard August 1. The charges against them carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.