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Zimbabwe Justice Minister's Trial Finally Under Way

The trial of Zimbabwe's justice minister for attempting to obstruct the course of justice finally got under way after a retired magistrate was appointed to preside over the case. Serving magistrates in the province the offense is alleged to have occurred had refused to try the minister citing intimidation.

Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa appeared before retired magistrate Phineas Chipopoteke in Rusape in the Manicaland province. Chinamasa faces charges of trying to persuade the victim of intra party violence to withdraw charges of assault against a fellow ruling Zanu - PF party member.

The trial failed to start last week when the chief magistrate of the province said no magistrate in the province was prepared to hear the case. They cited intimidation by the state security minister Didymus Mutasa. The magistrates said Mutasa had accused court officials of being members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The charges against Chinamasa stem from violence in a constituency in the province when the complainant, James Kaunye, challenged Mutasa to be the party's candidate for member of parliament in 2004. A gang of fellow party members assaulted Kaunye allegedly on Mutasa's orders. Mutasa was cleared of wrongdoing but some of the assailants were convicted.

According to the state controlled daily The Herald, Kaunye told the court that Chinamasa had tried to bribe him into withdrawing the charges against the alleged leader of the assailants, as it would tarnish Mutasa's image. Chinamasa allegedly offered to facilitate the complainant's acquisition of a farm and to assist him in an attempted murder case he was facing. Chinamsa denies all charges saying he approached the complainant to hear his side of the story.

The Law Society of Zimbabwe called the refusal of the magistrates to try the minister disturbing. The society's president Joseph James says the incident further underscores the need for the judiciary to be completely independent of the executive. He said the magistrates were being asked to try Chinamasa who happens to be their boss, adding that the matter brings the administration of justice in Zimbabwe into question.