BHRC has published its report raising concern for fair trial rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe following an observation mission to Harare in January 2019.
The observation mission, conducted by Michael Ivers QC, followed unrest during anti- government protests between 14 and 17 January 2019, where acts of violence against property and persons were reported to have been perpetrated in several places in Zimbabwe. Over 1,000 people were arrested, and reports indicated that the immediate response in the magistrates’ courts appeared to be a wholesale denial of bail rather than individual decisions. Subsequently a deeply worrying ‘fast tracking’ of criminal cases, including large multi-handed cases with over 50 defendants, occasionally without legal representation and even where there was representation inadequate time and facilities to prepare a defence, with haphazard and dangerous dock identifications.
The mission was undertaken to assess and report on compliance of the Zimbabwe magistrates’ courts with domestic and international fair trial standards. Particular concerns related to pre-trial detention and denial of bail, the right to legal representation and to prepare an adequate defence, and the rights of juveniles in criminal proceedings codified within the Zimbabwe Constitution as well as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights.
BHRC observed trials at two magistrates’ courts in and around Harare (Rotten Row in the Centre and Mbare in the South) between the 30 January and the 1 February 2019. As well as observing at the trials of some of those arrested, BHRC also spoke to a number of those involved in different roles in the criminal justice system both on and off the record.
The report raised serious concern for the rule of law and fair trial procedures in Zimbabwe in these cases and concluded that:
“The main concern is not simply the individual instances of apparent alleged human rights violations in terms of the criminal process but a wider systemic breakdown, at least temporarily, in the rule of law and powerful inferential evidence pointing to some central organisation, which would strike at the heart of the integrity of the Criminal Justice System”
The report recommends an investigation into the widely held belief that pressure, perhaps political in its genesis, was applied to Magistrates in the immediate aftermath of the unrest to weaken the protections afforded in the Constitution and mirroring international obligations.
BHRC also calls upon the High Court in Zimbabwe uphold the rule of law and adhere to international standards of fair trial rights in all cases and to urgently review some of the procedurally problematic convictions that have already taken place and thereby positively influence many of the ongoing cases where systemic problems, at the outset, are continuing to have an effect on the fairness of the proceedings
The mission was assisted by the American Bar Association (ABA), who conducted their own observations concurrently with other observers.