The biggest story selling in Zimbabwe these days is no doubt the ongoing inquest into the death of Zimbabwe’s most decorated soldier, the first post-independence commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, the late Retired General Solomon Tapfumaneyi Mujuru.
The inquest, being presided over by regional magistrate Walter Chikwanha, has brought into the open many hitherto unknown events, some of them quite intriguing, that took place before, during and after the fire that consumed the Mujuru farmhouse, presumably, together with Zimbabwe’s liberation war hero.
General Mujuru, according to the official position, was burnt beyond recognition in a fire at his farmhouse — a fire whose cause has so far been (officially) possibly a candle or electrical fault.
The Mujuru family, like everyone else that had the opportunity to behold the grisly spectacle, was unable to identify the charred human remains retrieved from the inferno.
Instead of putting to rest raging speculation over the General’s demise, the inquest has brought up many questions begging for answers. As would be natural, Zimbabweans are already forming opinions and making conclusions about what happened at the Mujurus’ Alamein Farm in Beatrice on the night of August 15, 2011.
Some of the questions raised surround issues of gunshots allegedly heard before the fire broke out, Mujuru’s keys and the mysterious blue flames.
Testimonies by crucial witnesses including the police, Mujuru’s maid, farm security guards, the fire brigade and the Mujuru family raised questions that appear to have left the events of August 15-16 open to even more conjecture. It is important, however, to understand the concept of an inquest — its purpose, what it can do and what it cannot do.
The purpose of an inquest is to examine witnesses on oath who can give evidence or information in order to establish who died — when, where, how and in what circumstances the deceased came by their death.
An inquest is a judicial inquiry into the cause of an unexpected or sudden death. It is held after police fully investigate the death and compile a docket which they then forward to the courts. Inquests into the cause of death of several prominent and ordinary people have been held in Zimbabwe over the years.
Such inquests include that for the late controversial Harare businessman and former wrestler and actor Oliver Tengende’s wife who died in a case of suspected poisoning.
The inquest was pregnant with drama but unfortunately, before a determination was made, Tengende committed suicide in the middle of the night at a church in Mufakose minutes after gunning down his late wife’s relatives.
The other was for the then Minister of Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation Border Gezi, who died in a road accident in 2001.The inquest blamed Gezi’s death on the negligence of officials of the CMED who fitted a wrong tyre to his vehicle.
Another inquest that dominated the media was that for the late businessman Peter Pamire who was killed when his Mitsubishi Pajero overturned in Borrowdale on March 9, 1997.
At least 20 witnesses testified in the inquest which was held after Pamire’s family suspected he had been murdered.
Forensic experts testified that the brake hose of Pamire’s ill-fated Pajero was sabotaged before the fatal crash and the provincial magistrate who presided over the inquest, recommended that the Attorney-General opens a full investigation into Pamire’s death.
In another inquest, the Zimbabwe Republic Police was blamed for the disaster in which 13 people died at a World Cup football qualifier between Zimbabwe and South Africa at the National Sports Stadium in July 2000.
Disgruntled fans threw objects onto the pitch after the SA team took a 2-0 lead with seven minutes remaining and police reacted by firing teargas into the packed terraces resulting in a stampede.
The inquest found the police at fault although no action was ever made known to have been taken against any individuals.
As a general rule, all inquests are held in public to which the Press and all members of the public are entitled to be present and witness the proceedings.
In Zimbabwe, an inquest is held under the direction of the Inquest Act which requires that an inquiry be made in the event of sudden deaths or death by violence. An investigation by police may lead to the exhumation of the deceased for the purpose of inspection to obtain all information procurable for the purpose of ascertaining the cause of death.
Witnesses are examined under oath and the magistrate holding an inquest shall not be bound by any rules of evidence which relate to civil or criminal proceedings. The law does not prevent the arrest of offenders or supposed offenders – whether the inquest has or has not commenced.
It is not a function of the magistrate to apportion blame — the magistrates’ court is one of investigation and inquiry; it is not adversarial. However, questions from family members can be hostile and interested persons have the right to representation.
The magistrate shall transmit to the Attorney-General the record of the conclusion at which he has arrived and such remarks upon the case, if any, as the magistrate thinks fit.