/ 29 May 2015

Swazi chief justice breaks cover for disciplinary hearing

Swaziland's chief justice Michael Ramodebedi
Swaziland's chief justice Michael Ramodebedi

The Swaziland Supreme Court, the highest judicial forum in the country, did not sit during May. How could it, with judges in prison or under self-imposed house arrest? 

While this may be frustrating for litigants, lawyers in the kingdom hope that a lasting solution will result from what may be a final confrontation between the country’s chief justice, Michael Ramodibedi, and the Judicial Service Commission (JSC).

He locked himself into his official Swazi residence when police arrived to arrest him last month and did not emerge until the first day of a JSC hearing set up to investigate several charges made against him.

The hearing on Monday was chaired by Acting Chief Justice Bheki Maphalala. But, if Ramodibedi had his way, the hearing would have ended before it even started: he argued that the commission’s members should all recuse themselves as he had a reasonable fear they would be biased towards him. A new body should then be inaugurated, he said.

This was refused. He was more successful with his request for a postponement — he argued that he had not had sufficient time to prepare for the inquiry. The matter has been put off for a week.

During the hearing, Ramodibedi was officially given a copy of the charges against him. 

Most of them were foreshadowed in the arrest warrant issued for him, and the most significant event of the day was the fact that he had emerged from his home.

Some of the charges relate to improper behaviour, including the allocation of particular cases to particular judges for ulterior purposes. 

In one well-known case, for example, he had Judge Mpendulo Simelane hear a case in which Ramodibedi himself was in dispute with the Swazi tax authorities over tax benefits claimed by Ramodibedi. 

The charges say this was improper on several grounds, including the fact that Simelane, while the high court registrar, had been involved in discussions between the two sides.

When the postponement was granted on Monday, Ramodibedi said: “Now I can smile”. 

But, for the Swazi judicial system, there’s little to smile about at this stage. 

Many of the country’s attorneys are critical about the way in which Ramodibedi has run the courts and the judicial system. They said they were especially outraged by Ramodibedi’s sacking of a fellow judge, Thomas Masuku. (See “Quirky metaphors, sham trials”.)

Although the sacking of Masuku is not listed on the charges Ramodibedi faces, he is charged with several counts of abusing his office and other forms of serious misbehaviour, including claims that he had his government chauffeur drive him to South Africa several times when the trips had not been officially authorised. 

Another new claim against him is that, while head of the JSC, he re-appointed a senior official of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Lillian Zwane, for a third term, although the law provides for just two terms. 

This charge is connected to another, namely for obstructing investigations of misconduct by Zwane for “failing, neglecting or refusing” to take action on a report filed by the commission.