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Lesotho's top judge loses bid to stall probe

Carmel Rickard

Five judges have said a tribunal to investigate if Judge Michael Ramodibedi should be impeached was fair.

Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.

Five judges of Lesotho's appeal court have found that the president of that court was not treated unfairly by the appointment of a tribunal to investigate whether he should be impeached.

Judge Michael Ramodibedi, who is president of Lesotho's appeal court and the chief justice of Swaziland, had claimed that natural justice demanded he should have been given a hearing before the tribunal was appointed.

Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane approached King Letsie III of Lesotho last year with a request that he appoint a tribunal to investigate several allegations made about Ramodibedi. Under the Constitution, the king is obliged to set up a tribunal if requested to do so by the prime minister. He must act on its findings and either dismiss or reinstate Ramodibedi, depending on the tribunal's recommendations.

Ramodibedi's appeal, widely seen as a last attempt to prevent the tribunal going ahead, was argued in Maseru last month before five South African judges. They had been asked to hear the matter to avoid any suggestion of bias.

Judge Fritz Brand, of South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal, dismissed the appeal. The judgment was unanimous.

Brand confirmed that Ramodibedi had not been given an opportunity to be heard before the decision was taken to appoint the tribunal. But this did not mean that the appointment infringed his right to fair procedure.

He said the courts were increasingly accepting "a more supple and encompassing duty to act fairly" rather than, as previously, the insistence on the rule of a formal hearing at which the affected person could appear and give his or her side of things. Brand said that, given the facts of the case, Ramodibedi "must still persuade us that in all the circumstances the treatment meted out to him was unfair".

Reputation
The "potentially adverse effect" of the tribunal's appointment was limited to his reputation. And if the tribunal found in his favour, the negative impact on his reputation was not likely to be permanent.

On the other hand, most of the allegations of misconduct made about Ramodibedi were already in the public domain. For example, "unseemly incidents" resulting from the conflict between Ramodibedi and Lesotho's chief justice Mahapela Lehohla, who has resigned, had been played out in public. Thus his reputation "was already tarnished before the request for the appointment of a tribunal".

"It seems to me that the only way to salvage his reputation is for [him] to successfully refute the allegations before the tribunal."

The court added that the "removal of uncertainty surrounding [Ramo­di­bedi's reputation] is not in his interest only". It also affected the "unconditional public respect for the integrity of the judiciary without which the court simply cannot function".

The Lesotho government wants Ramodibedi to be investigated for fraud and financial irregularities, and political improprieties.

There has been no announcement since the judgment about when the tribunal is likely to start its work.

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