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South African Law Disbanding Scorpions Ruled Unconstitutional

South Africa’s highest court has struck down the 2008 law that disbanded the independent crime investigating group known as the Scorpions.

The legislation to disband the Scorpions followed an investigation into now-president Jacob Zuma’s alleged involvement in a major arms deal. The Scorpions were replaced by a police-run unit known as the Hawks.

The Constitutional Court ruled on an amendment to the policing act that brought about the demise of the Scorpions, the Directorate of Special Operations, and the birth of the Hawks, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation. It says the amendment is unconstitutional because it does not ensure the independence of the Hawks.

Sting of the Scorpions

The Scorpions undertook many investigations of alleged government corruption and other alleged crimes by senior government officials. The unit’s conviction rate was well over 90 percent.

South African President Jacob Zuma (file photo)
South African President Jacob Zuma (file photo)

One of its most prominent cases was its investigation of Mr. Zuma on corruption and other charges. But those charges were dropped shortly before he was elected president. There were accusations by both sides that the actions were politically motivated.

Being part of the police department, the Hawks do not have the same independence as their predecessors. The Constitutional Court has given the government 18 months to ensure that they are independent of undue government influence or control.

The majority opinion read in part that the Hawks are “insufficiently insulated from political influence in its structure and functioning…because…activities must be coordinated by the Cabinet.”

The Hawks have investigated some corruption and racketeering cases, but not to the same extent as the Scorpions.