One of Zimbabwe's leading judges has resigned unexpectedly, giving no reason for his sudden departure from the High Court. Nearly all Zimbabwe's senior judges have left over the past three years.

The latest judicial departure, Judge Moses Chinhengo, was a low-profile judge who lawyers - including those who lost in cases he heard - say always gave professional judgments.

His resignation was announced on Friday by Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who speculated that the departing judge may have left for financial reasons.

Judges are not paid well, according to lawyers in the private sector, at a time when all but the rich are battling inflation of more than 600 percent.

Judge Chinhengo has not taken advantage of the government's program to hand out formerly white-owned land to the elite. Many of his colleagues are beneficiaries of the government's so-called land reform program, and have been given some of the richest farms in Zimbabwe.

The disintegration of the reputation of Zimbabwe's judiciary began three years ago, when then Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay was forced to leave office in fear of his life.

Since then, a further eight judges have departed, the last a few weeks ago, when a judge who had ruled in favor of the banned daily newspaper, The Daily News, which was engaged in a long legal wrangle with the government, fled to South Africa.

Another High Court judge, who was due to give a verdict last November in a controversial murder case, in which the accused were members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, has sent a message from overseas to say she is too ill to return home.

Zimbabwe's most senior judge, Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, is open about his support for the ruling ZANU-PF party.

Judge Chinhengo has not spoken of his reasons for leaving.

His departure comes at a critical time in Zimbabwe, when periods of detention were last week extended from 48 hours to 30 days for those arrested on suspicion of political and economic crimes.

President Robert Mugabe announced Friday, on the eve of his 80th birthday, that he would retire within the next five years, and that he intends to lead his ruling ZANU-PF into parliamentary elections in March 2005.

Human rights lawyers say, even though the independence of the courts has been eroded, there is nowhere else they can go in pursuit of justice.