Debate over Judges decision to release Bennett

bennet_mdcHARARE - Last Friday's order by a High Court judge to release on bail a detained senior MDC official, Roy Bennett (pictured), has been welcomed as a demonstration of the presence of independent judges in Zimbabwe's highly politicised higher courts, and a flicker of hope for the return of the rule of law, rights groups, diplomats and legal experts said.

But, they warned, it was too early to celebrate as Bennett was still due to stand trial at a circuit court in the eastern border city of Mutare. The High Court on Saturday deferred his trial date from Monday, with the State proposing that the trial take off on October 27, but the defence team insisting it was not yet ready and wanted more time.

Bennett is charged with illegally possessing arms for purposes of committing acts of terrorism which carries a maximum death sentence. Bennett denies the charge. The MDC treasurer was granted bail on Friday by Justice Charles Hungwe, hours after Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai announced a controversial decision to boycott the unity government. Justice Hungwe concurred with the defence team that Bennett was a good candidate for bail after strictly adhering to stiff bail conditions set for him by the Supreme Court in March.

The MDC treasurer was arrested on February 13 just before he was to be sworn-in as deputy Agriculture minister in the new power-sharing government. He was released on bail in March but was re-arrested on Wednesday last week after a pre-trial court hearing.

Independent people

Speaking on Friday’s decision to free him from jail, Bennett said he welcomed the High Court ruling by Justice Hungwe. “I think within the judicial system you have independent judges, who in their own right are independent people with the background and credibility and history, and I think they are coming to the fore and standing behind the rule of law,” Bennett said.

But despite his surprise at his sudden and unexpected release from jail by the High Court in Harare, Bennett was not celebrating. He still saw no grounds for optimism ahead of his trial, which he views as persecution in a fabricated case which he contends should not have reached the courts in the first place.

A rights lawyer in Harare said: “We are happy but we don’t think that this signals a change for the better in the judiciary in Zimbabwe. It’s too early to read too much into that judgment.”

He said they would be fully satisfied that the “pro-Zanu (PF) judiciary” had changed if it exonerated Bennett on the “trumped-up” charges and all the MDC leaders and rights activist who were appearing in court on fabricated charges of banditry.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said they were “greatly encouraged” by Justice Hungwes order reinstating the Supreme Courts bail order. She said while she was heartened by Friday’s bail ruling by the High Court, “we are under no illusion as to the disrespect and contempt which is regularly shown by representatives of the executive to orders made by the judiciary.”

Patronising judgement

However, another rights lawyer said it was a cynical commentary on the state of political affairs in Zimbabwe that Judge Hungwe should receive accolades for releasing a man from jail who was never supposed to be sent there in the first place.

“It is extremely patronizing for anyone, whether on the African continent or in the West, to praise President Mugabe for allowing the judiciary to exercise its constitutionally-enshrined independence, assuming, of course, that Justice Hungwe’s judgement was not subject to extra-judicial interference,” he said. “Any celebration of victory is premature until the outcome of Bennett’s trial.”

Petras called for the dropping of all charges against Bennett. “We look forward to Bennetts immediate release, and urge authorities to refrain from further persecuting him and others through abuse of the law,” said the rights lawyers’ boss.

The European Union said it was “deeply concerned” over Bennett’s harassment and added that it regretted “that politically motivated abuse persists in the country.”

“The EU stands ready to assist the inclusive government in implementing the much-needed reforms included in the GPA in the areas of democracy, respect for human rights and restoration of the rule of law,” the bloc said in a statement. “The parties to the GPA agreed last year to build a society free of violence, fear, intimidation and hatred. This commitment should be honoured without delay.”

US concerned

In Washington last weekend, US State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters that the case against Bennett is a “blatant example of the absence of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.” The US embassy acting public affairs officer, Andrew Posner, also reiterated that his government was worried about political developments in Harare.

The US is very concerned about the state of rule of law in Zimbabwe and ongoing politicised arrests and prosecutions, said Posner. He expressed optimism that the rule of law, the right to assemble and freedom of speech would be restored.

There are mounting concerns that opposition organisations and unions that have been vocal against President Mugabe and his policies had been silenced through harassment.

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