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Criminal justice system stands accused

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Yesterday we carried a report with the headline Court grants MDC-T activists immediate medical exam application.

NewsDay Editorial

This was about a Harare magistrate’s ruling that seven main opposition MDC-T activists arrested and refused bail should immediately undergo medical examination after being alleged brutally assaulted last month in the city centre as they demonstrated peacefully for jobs. According to the Constitution, this was their democratic right, but the police allegedly disregarded this and arrested them on the obscure and unbelievable grounds of obstructing movement in the city.

It appeared they were determined to arrest on the flimsiest of excuses. That this was all done under the gaze of Sadc Heads of State and Government in the country for the regional bloc’s summit was horrifying enough. But to then go on and deny them medical treatment as ordered by the magistrate at their initial remand for weeks is most unconscionable.

Magistrate Tendai Mahwe rightly queried: “If it takes more than two weeks for a person to be medically examined by a doctor, what will make us believe it will happen now?”

Indeed, the credibility and integrity of those who should have ensured this in the first instance is gravely in doubt. With such obvious disinclination to facilitate this, nothing really positive and conscientious can be expected of them.

In the first place, this is unfeeling, if not utterly cruel. All cases with health implications should be handled with emergency until or unless a medical doctor decides otherwise. We wonder: Do prisoners have recourse once behind bars or they are completely at the mercy of the guards?

Secondly, this amounts to interfering with the course of justice as evidence of such nature as assault is best collected when it is still fresh, not when wounds have long healed. This is so elementary it goes without saying. When this is not done so brazenly, it raises suspicion that someone could be biding their time for the evidence to disappear through the natural process of healing.

Thirdly, this can be interpreted as political victimisation by some State elements as this is happening too often whenever real and opposition activists are remanded in custody. It is sad and tragic that these elements have been indoctrinated to give opposition activists and ordinary supporters the worst treatment possible.

To jog the memories of those who see nothing wrong with this, the Rhodesian regime left national hero Leopold Takawira to die of diabetes at the then Salisbury Central Prison in 1970 by wilfully neglecting him.

Any officer disregarding court-issued instructions should be made personally accountable and liable. The buck must stop somewhere, not to have issues thrown back and forth.

It must be pointed out that suspects facing more serious crimes have not had problems being granted bail. These are not dangerous criminals with blood on their hands and long chains of conviction.

There is need for both the courts and the State to have a sense of proportion. Prosecute, yes; persecute, no. The criminal justice chain — from the police, prosecution to the prison authorities — shares blame for this outrage on the grounds of commission and omission.

The relevant authorities should forthwith stop this widespread shameful conduct through a systemic solution.

Otherwise, the whole criminal justice system stands accused — they could have more to answer than the MDC-T?.

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