/ 25 January 2008

Judicial independence under scrutiny

High-profile criminal cases involving senior South African officials have renewed fears among opposition parties and the legal community that judicial independence may be at risk in the post-apartheid era.

President Thabo Mbeki’s government has had a testy relationship with the judiciary since proposing legislation that would allow him to name some top judges and place court administration under the thumb of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development.

The Bills were withdrawn two years ago after an outcry from jurists, including former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos, the human rights lawyer who helped defend Nelson Mandela at his 1963 treason trial.

But suspicions remain in the legal community over the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) commitment to an independent judiciary in the wake of the party’s endorsement last month of a ”transformation” of the justice system.

The effort, which the ANC says is aimed at making the judiciary more reflective of the majority black nation, would include a restructuring of various courts and their responsibilities.

”Clearly the changes being proposed are designed to put politicians in control of judges,” said Paul Hoffman, a lawyer and the director of the FW de Klerk Foundation’s Centre for Constitutional Rights.

De Klerk was the last white president of South Africa.

”Proper judges are deeply concerned that we are facing a meltdown in the constitutional order, which will follow if the politicians take charge of the judiciary,” Hoffman said.

Zuma case

The legal troubles of Jacob Zuma, who defeated Mbeki in a bitterly contested ANC leadership battle last month, have also sparked accusations from his camp of high-level government meddling in the justice system.

Supporters of Zuma, who is due to go on trial in August for racketeering, money laundering and other charges tied to an arms deal, say the case was fabricated as part of a shadowy smear campaign to deny the ANC leader the state presidency.

Mbeki denied that charge in a speech at the ANC congress.

Zuma, now the frontrunner to replace Mbeki when he leaves office in 2009, says he will bow out of the race if convicted.

While the ANC, which is controlled by Zuma loyalists, has said the rule of law must run its course in his case, analysts question whether the portly Zulu politician will again darken the doors of a courtroom. Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006.

Newspapers are speculating that the state will propose an amnesty for all involved in the ill-fated arms deal.

Neither prosecutors nor Zuma have commented on the amnesty idea, which would likely clear the last major hurdle to Zuma’s presidential ambitions but would worry many observers.

”It would be very sad if there was a general amnesty because it would more or less say that the state is condoning corruption,” said Shadrack Gutto, head of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa.

”It will totally undermine faith in the judicial system.”

Scorpions feel the heat

Concerns that South African justice is increasingly prone to political intervention have also been fuelled by a separate corruption case that will land police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi in court next month.

Selebi, who is accused of criminal dealings with an alleged gangster, has branded the case a vendetta by the Scorpions, the FBI-style crime unit that has spearheaded the investigation and waged an extended turf war with his police force.

Established in 1999 to prosecute high-profile cases, the Scorpions also investigated Zuma, prompting his followers to brand the unit a Mbeki political tool and push for it to be incorporated into the police.

The ANC passed a resolution to do so last month, a move that did not sit well with the country’s main opposition party.

”Given that the Scorpions conducted successful investigations into Jackie Selebi’s and Jacob Zuma’s alleged corrupt activities, it is understandable that the public are viewing this [incorporating Scorpions into the police] as a cynical attempt by the ANC to protect corrupt members in its ranks,” DA leader Helen Zille said in a statement on Thursday.

Zille was among those who suggested that Mbeki may have protected Selebi, considered one of the president’s allies, from prosecution by the country’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

Mbeki suspended the head of the NPA last year, saying the chief prosecutor did not have a good relationship with the country’s justice minister. It was subsequently discovered that the NPA had requested a warrant for Selebi’s arrest. — Reuters