/ 21 June 2010

Facing justice, Fifa style

Facing Justice

The Johannesburg magistrate’s court is the sort of unloved municipal building whose corridors smell of damp and bureaucracy, and whose chilly courtrooms recall Bismarck’s observation that those who love sausages and believe in justice should never see either being made.

Enter this structure at present, however, and you are greeted by large signs proclaiming the “Fifa World Cup Courts”, directing you to the courtrooms which have been specially established to deal swiftly with anyone besmirching the good name of this football tournament. Unsure of when the next case is up? Then do take your seat in the “Fifa World Cup Court Waiting Room”.

If it feels inevitable that football’s world governing body should finally have slapped its branding on justice itself, you are strongly urged just to submit. Consider this a little pocket of Zurich in an area of Johannesburg in which Fifa president Sepp Blatter is unlikely ever to dine.

Keen to dispel its crime-ridden image before the tournament, South Africa agreed to the establishment of 56 World Cup Courts across the country, staffed by more than 1 500 dedicated personnel, including magistrates, prosecutors, public defenders and interpreters.

Intended to dispense speedy justice, they sit late into the night — or rather they twiddle their thumbs late into the night, because a mere 25 cases have been heard at the time of writing. As the the Mail and Guardian reported, that clocks in at a competitively priced R1,75-million a conviction.

The most high-profile cases have been the two Zimbabweans who robbed some foreign journalists on a Wednesday, were arrested on the Thursday, and began 15-year jail sentences on the Friday; and the Dutch women who wore orange dresses to Soccer City stadium and were charged with “ambush marketing” for Bavaria beer. The ladies appeared before Johannesburg magistrates last week — despite their arrest being denounced as “disproportionate” by The Netherlands foreign minister and an embassy official — and were bailed to return on Tuesday on criminal charges which carry a maximum penalty of six months.

And the others? “I don’t work for Fifa,” sighs the clerk at Johannesburg magistrate’s court, but he is sufficiently amused by the resources lavished upon the handful of petty cases dealt with so far to produce the relevant charge sheets.

LA Law it is not. With the exception of the Dutch causes célèbres, a typical case features a Soweto man who stole two cans of Coke, two mini cans of soda water, and one mini can of lemonade from a Soccer City corporate hospitality lounge. He admitted guilt and paid a fine. Elsewhere, a pair of tourists who assaulted a local were fined R15 000 between them, while another Jo’burg resident who stole a few bottles of alcohol from Soccer City had his bail opposed and remains in custody, presumably lacking an irate foreign minister to intervene on his behalf.

In a country in which many residents feel the wheels of justice turn at a glacial pace, if at all, the speed of the World Cup courts was initially welcomed. But as more details emerge of their cost, and the nature of crimes being tried, some have predictably begun to ask whether time might not be better spent bringing more serious matters to court. For largely petty offences, the harsh sentences being handed down have a distinctly showy quality to them. At the weekend, the National Prosecuting Authority was forced to insist it was possible to mount a fair trial in 24 hours.

‘Special Measures Act’
For all its superficial silliness, though, it is the Dutch case that touches on the most troubling issues. Placed on South Africa’s statute book in 2006 was something called the 2010 Fifa World Cup South Africa Special Measures Act. The women in orange are accused of contravening two sections of this law, namely the parts that prohibit “unauthorised commercial activities inside an exclusion zone” and “enter[ing] into a designated area while in unauthorised possession of a commercial object”.

What is so radical about the legislation, though, is the fact that it makes such activity a criminal rather than civil offence. Not only does this arguably debase what it is to be a crime, but it contravenes rights enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution. In March, Fifa successfully pursued a low-cost airline for using pictures of footballs, vuvuzelas, and stadiums in its advertising, causing a South African legal expert to voice amazement at the “excesses” of the World Cup legislation, and to lament the choice the government made “to placate Fifa” at the expense of freedom of expression.

Fifa praises South Africa for adopting this draconian stance — as well it might. It’s all very pour encourager les autres. Yet, when it is pointed out that even the Chinese government stopped short of actually criminalising this kind of marketing intrusion at the Beijing games, a Fifa spokesperson declares that similar legislation is in place in New Zealand ready for next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Does that constitute what questionable newspaper convention demands we style as a “growing trend”? It’s certainly not the most enormous stretch to imagine the International Olympic Committee demanding similar laws for London 2012, though one can only hope the coalition would roll over less easily on legislation affecting liberties than New Labour were given to doing.

In South Africa, alas, that horse has bolted, and it is difficult not to conclude the government was either browbeaten by Fifa or displayed an effectively unprincipled willingness to please. After all, under pre-existing laws, it would have been possible for Fifa to sue the Dutch beer company for what would amount to a compensatory royalty.

With the two offenders threatened with six months jail, however, all Fifa will tell the Guardian is that it is “considering” suing Bavaria. Yet if it truly believes it has suffered economic detriment, then why wouldn’t it? It appears that instead of the hassle of launching its own litigation, Fifa would far rather see local law agencies enforce its rapacious will through the criminal courts, at whatever preposterous cost to the host nation. – guardian.co.uk