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Zimbabwe Court Dismisses Referendum Challenge

Zimbabwe map

Zimbabwe map

A court in Zimbabwe has dismissed a petition by pro-democracy groups to delay the March 16 date for a referendum on a new constitution. The groups argued the date does not give Zimbabweans enough time to look over the new charter. The civic organizations’ lawyer said he will appeal the ruling.

In Harare Thursday, Judge George Chiweshe dismissed an application by the National Constitutional Assembly, or NCA, to delay next month's constitutional referendum.

Alec Muchadehama, the lawyer for the NCA, a coalition of pro-democracy groups, explained that the judge said he had no jurisdiction to review a decision made by President Robert Mugabe, who set the date for the vote.

“The president is given powers by the constitution to do what he wants," said Muchadehama. "And therefore the court cannot question what you [Mugabe] would have done. We do not agree what the judge was saying. Not at all. My instructions from [NCA] are to appeal against the judgement as a whole.”

The proposed new constitution was introduced last month after a four-year, often contentious writing process.

The main parties in Zimbabwe's unity government - ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC - both support the new charter, and have agreed on the March 16 referendum date.

But pro-democracy groups under NCA said that Zimbabweans need more time to study their new constitution.

In 2000, the NCA teamed up with the MDC, which was then the opposition party, to defeat a different proposed constitution. This time, however, the MDC favors the new charter.

A new constitution in Zimbabwe is crucial to satisfy African leaders, who want it adopted ahead of elections expected around July that would end the coalition government. The government was formed under pressure from regional leaders after the violent and disputed 2008 elections.