Parliament is one of the three arms of the State — the others being the Executive and the Judiciary.
As such, Parliament enjoys not only constitutional recognition, but protection as well.
Section 32 of the Constitution provides that the legislative authority of Zimbabwe shall vest in the Legislature which shall consist of the President and Parliament.
It is because of the weight of authority granted to the Legislature that any acts of contempt of Parliament should be taken seriously.
But what is contempt of Parliament?
Contempt can be described as any act of commission or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the discharge of its mandate or the performance of its functions, or which obstructs any member or officer of such House in the discharge of his/her duty, or which has a likelihood of such consequences.
Because of the nature of its location in the governance matrix and the legislative framework, Parliament is entitled to punish those who commit contempt of Parliament.
This power cannot be challenged even by the courts.
The Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act [Chapter 2:08] makes provision for issues relating to the privileges, immunities and powers of the institution of Parliament. These are premised on the privileges, immunities and powers as were applicable in the case of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons as at April 18 1980 when Zimbabwe attained its independence.
Please note that at independence Zimbabwe adopted a largely Westminster parliamentary system.
Section 21 of the Act creates certain offences for specified conduct. It provides as follows:
Any person who commits any act, matter or thing specified in the Schedule shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding Level Seven or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.
And what are some of the acts of commission cited for criminal prosecution in the Schedule? They are as follows:
l Assaulting, insulting, interfering with or wilfully obstructing a member coming to or going from Parliament or whilst within the precincts of Parliament, or on account of his conduct in Parliament or a committee or endeavouring to compel a member by force, insult or menace to declare himself in favour of or against any proposition or matter pending or expected to be brought before Parliament or a committee
l Assaulting, insulting, interfering with, molesting, resisting or wilfully obstructing an officer of Parliament in the execution of his duty or whilst coming to or going from Parliament or whilst within the precincts of Parliament, in the course of or in connection with his duties or on account of his conduct as an officer
l Creating or joining in any disturbance in Parliament or the vicinity of Parliament whilst Parliament is sitting whereby the proceedings of Parliament are or are likely to be interrupted
l Committing any act, matter or thing specified in and declared to be contempt in any Standing Order.
On July 23 2011, a joint sitting of the Committee on Justice, Legal Affairs, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs and the Senate Human Rights Thematic Committee was scheduled at Parliament Building. The committees made an attempt to conduct public hearings on the recently gazetted Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill, 2011.
Proceedings of the committees at Parliament were disrupted by persons who seem to have acted in common purpose to defeat the conduct of those public hearings.
This saw Honourable Brian Tshuma, the MDC-T MP for Hwange Central, being assaulted as well as some journalists who were covering the proceedings.
This followed similar disruptions in Chinhoyi, Masvingo and Mutare.
It is submitted that the acts complained of, the heckling, the noise, the assaults and the disruptions, fall squarely into the definition of acts that are criminally punishable at law under the Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act.
Police details attending the proceedings were duty-bound to have apprehended those that violated the law.
Now that they did not, they will have to rely on video footage to apprehend the wrongdoers who were clearly in contempt of Parliament. Those that aided and abetted these offences were also punishable at law under the doctrine of common purpose.
Failure to punish the offenders will set a very bad precedent to any future hearings by the Legislature. I am glad that the Speaker of the House Assembly has clearly stated that Parliament will not be dissuaded from carrying out its constitutional mandate by such disruptions.
John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust writing in his personal capacity. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org