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Zimbabwean Legal Crusader Dies

A Zimbabwean judge who defied pressure to deliver judgments that favor the government and the ruling ZANU-PF party in an important case, has died. Sandra Mangwira is being praised for her integrity during the highly publicized case.

Judge Sandra Mangwira died in Scotland during the weekend after years of battling cancer. She continued that battle during her final case, one of the most controversial trials in Zimbabwe's legal history.

In that case, six members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, including a Zimbabwe parliament member, were charged with killing a Zanu-PF loyalist in November 2001. The ruling party loyalist had been accused of kidnapping and killing a leading opposition politician.

Judge Mangwira returned from the United Kingdom while undergoing chemotherapy treatment determined to ensure she, and no one else, brought the case to conclusion. During several key moments in the marathon trial, Judge Mangwira collapsed and had to be revived to continue proceedings.

In August 2004, Judge Mungwira found the state's 14 witnesses, all policemen, had lied to the court. She also found false confessions by the accused were made under torture in police custody. All six defendants were acquitted.

Her Harare High Court staff placed on record that they were harassed by secret security agents, and defense lawyers also placed on record they had received threats to their own and their family's safety.

The trial was sensitive to President Robert Mugabe's administration because, according to Judge Mungwira's verdict, the people responsible for the murder, were part of a secretive third force.

Several of Zimbabwe's top lawyers have paid tribute to her, including Arnold Tsunga director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. He said she showed courage in her judgment in her last case. He added it is a pity she did not live long enough for her objectivity to make a bigger impact on society.

Attorney Beatrice Mtetwa, who has won several international awards for courage, said Judge Mungwira had set an example of what courts should be, independent and answerable only to the law.

Zimbabwe has about 20 high court judges and official records show that most of them have been given white-owned farms since their appointments.

Judge Mungwira, was not one of them.

She was 49 when she died. Following the case last year, she went to Scotland to join her husband and seek further cancer treatment.