Regional and international pressure is mounting on Zimbabwe's Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku to stop Justice Charles Hungwe from being pushed out of office by senior Zanu-PF officials.
Hungwe has come under fire for granting the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission a warrant to search the offices of Indigenisation and Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere, Mines and Mining Development Minister Obert Mpofu and Transport and Infrastructure Development Minister Nicholas Goche.
Hungwe also ordered the release of human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa on $500 bail last month after issuing a court order at night for her release on the day of her arrest that was initially ignored by the police.
The Centre for Independence of Judges and Lawyers, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, is co-ordinating a global response to the threat to Hungwe's job, said an official with knowledge of the group's lobby efforts who spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week.
"The centre has brought together 60 eminent jurists who have written a letter to Chidyausiku urging him to stop the trial by the media that is taking place in Zimbabwe. Many of these judges are frowning upon the conduct of the Zimbabwe Judicial Service Commission [JSC] and the chief justice for failing to defend a prominent legal figure who is the subject of a serialised attack that has taken place in the government-controlled media," said the official.
"If Hungwe has misconducted himself, the law must be allowed to take its course without any interference."
Judges must be protected
In the centre's letter, dated April 2, which the M&G has a copy of, the organisation tells Chidyausiku that it "will continue to closely monitor the manner in which the JSC and the office of the chief justice will act to resolve the unfortunate incidences relating to Hungwe".
The organisation said it believes that judges must be free to discharge their professional duties without any interference, and they must be protected in law and practice from attack, harassment and persecution.
The strongly worded letter, signed by the centre's secretary general Wilder Tayler, says the organisation expects misconduct by any judge to be dealt with openly in a "transparent process undertaken by appropriate authorities guided by the law, rather than a trial by the media and conviction in the court of public opinion".
Tayler says the attack against Hungwe is worrying and "creates the negative impression that some powerful people are intent on creating a climate that would result in Justice Hungwe being removed from the bench".
The letter names the state-controlled Herald newspaper in particular for vilifying Hungwe.
The Herald has in recent weeks been pressing for the suspension of Hungwe after unearthing what it described as "erroneous judgments" that he had delivered.
The newspaper reported that Hungwe had failed to sentence Jonathan Mutsinze, whom he convicted 10 years ago for an armed robbery and murder. Mutsinze's record went missing, and he is still in prison, leaving Hungwe unable to sentence him.
Charges of misconduct
Earlier this month, Chidyausiku summoned Hungwe to his chambers for a meeting that was also attended by Judge President George Chiweshe. Hungwe was notified of the charges of misconduct being brought against him, as well as the invocation of Section 87 (3) of the Constitution in this respect.
Section 87 (3) allows President Robert Mugabe to suspend Hungwe and to set up a tribunal to investigate the charges against him.
Media reports this week suggested that Chidyausiku had written a letter to Mugabe explaining the allegations of misconduct brought against Hungwe.
The Centre for Independence of Judges and Lawyers' letter follows up on covert pressure that has already been brought to bear on Chidyausiku.
It is understood from sources in his office that Chidyausiku has received several individual letters from chief justices in the Southern African Development Community condemning the attack on an independent justice in Zimbabwe.
A legal source within the centre, who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity, indicated that South Africa's Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng had not written to Chidyausiku, as plans were already under way to set up a meeting between Mogoeng and Hungwe, for the former to get a briefing on the challenges faced by the Zimbabwean judges.
But the legal source said: "South Africa is very concerned about the events taking place in Zimbabwe, and Mogoeng speaking out against the troubles faced by the judiciary would help in calming tensions."
Sources in the legal fraternity in Harare and Johannesburg said Chidyausiku was uneasy because the stance being taken by the regional chief justices could result in the annual Southern African Chief Justices Forum, which Chidyausiku was set to host in November, being moved to Zambia.
"There are serious contemplations to move it to Zambia and hold it in August … this is largely because of the political uncertainty that is taking place in Zimbabwe," said an official involved in the management committee that oversees the forum.
The Zimbabwe JSC refused to respond to queries on whether Zimbabwe would still host the forum.
In the centre's letter, Tayler asks Chidyausiku to share with the organisation measures he has taken to protect Hungwe from the systematic attacks. It could not be established whether Chidyausiku had responded to the letter. Efforts to get a comment from Chidyausiku were fruitless.