Judge Mathonsi recently presided over the ground-breaking case State v James Muromo & Another HH 286-2012, a matter that demonstrates the extent to which some of the Zimbabwean law enforcement officers, particularly the police, have not only abdicated their constitutional role ofprotecting the public but often collude to harbour criminals. In passing judgement, the Judge made the following remarks:
"The circumstances of this case are an indictment of our criminal justice system. Gruesome offences were committed right under the noses of police officers. In fact, one of the victims actually ran from his assailants to hide behind a police officer. This did not deter the assailants from dragging him from there and severely assaulting him inflicting fatal injuries. When the assailants were working on their second victim, a hapless young woman whose braids they had pulled off her head and they were assaulting her with logs even on her private parts, police officers arrived and they were even urinating in her mouth.
"This did not stop the savagery as they went further to dump her lifeless body at her homestead. Although the assailants are known, were mentioned by name, and the police officers witnessed the assault only to plead with the criminals to release the victims, we are told more than 10 years after the victims met their painful death, that the "co-accused persons are still at large". How can they be at large when the police officers witnessed the assault? Why did they not arrest them then and there? Why did it take such a long time to even commence this excuse of a trial?
"It really leaves a sour taste in the mouth, as it suggests that the police just stood akimbo as innocent victims were bludgeoned to death in their full view. The assailants were then allowed to walk free.
"In my view, the police should do a lot of soul searching if they are to sustain any credibility in the eyes of those whose safety and well-being they are sworn to safeguard. The same can be said of the prosecution which did not acquit itself well in these proceedings and one would not be judging them harshly at all by saying that they not only trivialised the offence but at times appeared to protect accused persons showing no respect whatsoever for the sanctity of human life."
This case represents one of the several cases of low profile victims of organised violence in Zimbabwe, and whose names would never appear in the statistics books. It also highlights the constraining environment in which some of the few independent Judges like Mathonsi J are operating in. The police officers are not only abdicating their constitutional and legislative responsibility to bring criminals to book but actually shield vile criminals. It beggars belief as to who shall guard such intransigent guards.
The Judge’s remark in this case also echo, but slightly falls short of, the sentiments by the former Zimbabwe High Court judge Justice Gillespie when he outlined reasons for his resignation in a review of a criminal case in 2001. Judge Gillespie had accused the government of promoting a campaign of terror and said increasing lawlessness forced him to quit although the government-owned media dismissed his sentiments and calling the judge an “unrepentant racist” former Rhodesian whose criticism had demonstrated a “disgusting abuse of the bench” (The Herald 6/10/2001). One wonders whether such accusations will be levelled against Mathonsi J, for his criticisms, albeit in a different context.
On a note of optimism the Muromo case demonstrates that if Zimbabwean judges properly uphold the rule of law and their shared judicial values of independence and objectivity like Judge Mathonsi, then they present a potent force that would reform the judiciary, with a domino effect on the other arms of the state.
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