What happens when a corrupt official uses the justice system to further his own interests?
|“How does the defendant plead?” Justice Sabrina Moyo’s deep voice, signifying authority and demanding obedience rang through the shabby courtroom.
“Not guilty, Your Honour.” James Mushore, the defendant’s lawyer, answered the charge in a confident, almost defiant tone.
The young lawyer’s positive reply caused a ripple in the gallery, which was filled with people anxious to watch the proceedings in a case that had fascinated the country. The noise and laughter seemed to increase in volume.
“Guilty!” One man stood up, shouted at the defendant and waved at his companions crowded onto the tiny public benches. Justice Moyo brought her gavel down on her desk.
“Silence in my courtroom! If I hear any noise from the spectators I will clear the courtroom!” She pointed at the gesticulating spectator, who was now standing staring at her.
“Guards, get him out of my courtroom! And remove anyone else who wants to disrupt my court. I am the only judge in this room today.”
While her command was carried out, Justice Moyo lowered her eyes to the papers on her desk. She shuffled them around, first reading the prosecutor’s charges and sentence recommendations. Five minutes passed before she’d finished reading the defence’s papers. When she looked up the spectators were sitting silently, staring at her respectfully. Two of the courtroom guards had moved to either side of the benches, ready to deal with any unruly members of the public.
“Mr Sibanda,” she addressed the prosecutor, who was rocking on his chair, a sardonic smile fixed on his face. He stood up, scraping back his chair noisily. The smile never left his face as he stared at her.
Prosecutor Jason Sibanda had never presented a case in Justice Moyo’s court, but she would have recognised him immediately. His cheap shiny suit and scuffed leather shoes were almost a uniform at the Attorney General’s office, but his arrogant demeanour marked him as just another political stooge.
“I see the defendant has been incarcerated for 18 months. It looks like this case has never been brought to trial. Yet you are charging him with treason and with defamation. May I ask the reason that a charge of treason, which is quite possibly the most serious crime in Zimbabwe, is being brought to me? And why it has taken so long?”
Prosecutor Sibanda smirked at the judge. He looked around the courtroom, and slowly turned around, smiling at the spectators and court officials. He opened his arms, palms facing upward, as though welcoming friends into his office.
“Mr Sibanda,” Justice Moyo’s patience was being sorely tested. “This is not the place for posturing and theatrics. It’s a courtroom. Now – I asked you a question. And I’d like an answer.”
The smirk never left his face. He opened the file on the table in front of him and took out a grubby sheet of paper. He carefully scanned his handwritten notes then looked up at the judge.
“Justice Moyo,” his tone was almost condescending. “This person is a very dangerous man. Our investigations have proved that not only has he defamed our president and esteemed government, but he has also aligned himself with our country’s enemies. Justice Moyo, he is a dangerous man, and the only reason for the delay in bringing this trial before a court is the lengthy investigations we in the Attorney General’s office have had to undertake to prove beyond reasonable doubt that this man - ” Sibanda’s voice suddenly rose in pitch and volume as he turned to point dramatically at the defendant’s table “- Stephen Masango, is a traitor and should be hanged by the neck until he is dead!”
An audible gasp of horror erupted from the public gallery as well as many of the court officials. Justice Moyo brought the gavel down on her desk again.
“Order!” she shouted.
As the room fell silent she looked over at Sibanda. She was furious, but would not let it show on her face. Instead she clenched her fists tightly around the gavel’s handle. When she spoke her voice was low, angry and controlled.
“Mr Mushore.” The young lawyer stood up.
“Yes, Your Honour?”
“I want to hear your client’s story. After 18 months incarceration without any recourse it is the least we can do for him. Is he able to take the stand?”
Sibanda leapt to his feet. Before he could open his mouth Justice Moyo spoke.
“Sit down, Mr Sibanda. You have already had your say, and I do not want to hear from you at the moment.”
Sibanda remained standing, and stared at Justice Moyo.
“If you are trying to intimidate me, Mr Sibanda, it is not working. Now, sit down before I have you arrested and removed for contempt of court.”
Sibanda sat down. By this time James had helped his client to the witness box. Justice Moyo remained expressionless as she watched the frail young man in his filthy prison uniform take the oath on the Bible. Court documents showed he was only 25 years old. She took out the faded photograph in the press cutting accompanying the documents. The man in that picture wore a crisp white shirt and neat dark trousers. His face was brave and determined as he held his white protest sign above his head. It was difficult to believe the man waiting to testify was the same person in the photograph.
“Mr Masango,” she hoped her voice was calming and gentle.
“Yes, Your Honour?” his reply was quiet, but firm. Justice Moyo knew enough about the horror of her country’s prisons, and she silently prayed Stephen Masango had not been too badly affected by his lengthy incarceration.
“I want to know what happened. Why you undertook this protest. Please tell the court your story. And there is to be no interruption from the prosecution or the defence,” she looked directly at Sibanda, who stared back at her unflinchingly.
Stephen Masango drew a deep breath.
“In order to tell you why I decided to protest I have to tell you a bit about myself, Your Honour. I want to try and help you understand why I did what I did.”
Justice Moyo nodded.
“I was born in Harare in 1985. I am the youngest of three children, and the only son. My sisters are working in South Africa. My father is a teacher, but he has now retired. My mother was a nurse. She died of cancer last year.”
“When did you last see your family?” Justice Moyo almost wished she hadn’t asked the question, because she knew the answer before he replied.
“I have not seen anyone since August 28, 2008. The day of my protest.”
Justice Moyo looked at the newspaper picture again. How had this young man survived 18 months in a filthy prison without seeing his family? How could he still be so lucid? She knew Zimbabwe’s prisons are amongst the worst in the world, with shortages of clothing, food and bedding. Disease was rife, and the appalling physical and mental abuse inflicted on the inmates was well documented. Several of Justice Moyo’s contemporaries claimed that if Hell was on earth then it was a Zimbabwe prison.
“Please continue,” she murmured.
“When I left school I wanted to be a teacher like my father. I studied at the Teachers’ Training College. My sisters had gone to South Africa to work, because they are nurses and nurses do not get paid well in Zimbabwe. They were sending money back home for me to study, and to help my parents. My mother was sick, and we were having a problem paying for her medicine. My father worked for a government school, and his salary was not enough.
“When I qualified in 2006 I got a job at a school in Zaka. Transport was expensive, so I could not come home very often to see my parents. It was very difficult, especially when my mother got sick. So I started to offer extra lessons in the school holidays. That was really the only time I could go home. I taught some of the children living near my parents’ house in Mabelreign during the holidays.”
The entire courtroom was silent. Justice Moyo noticed even the arrogant Sibanda, slouched in his chair was listening intently to Stephen Masango’s testimony.
“My mother got sick in January, 2008. We did not have enough money to help her, because my oldest sister was married with a child and no longer working. So I offered extra lessons at the school in Zaka. The parents at Zaka don’t have much money, but they would pay me what they could. Education is very important, Your Honour...”
Justice Moyo nodded. Stephen cleared his throat.
“When the school found out, I lost my job. The headmaster said I was not allowed to do private teaching. He told me I was going against Zimbabwe’s government education system. I did not understand – teachers at private schools are allowed to offer extra lessons, but not government school teachers.
“The headmaster told me I would never teach in Zimbabwe again. I returned to Harare, and applied to the Ministry of Education for a new teaching post, but I discovered the headmaster had got me blacklisted. There are not many private schools in Harare, and I was looking for a job in the middle of the year. I also did not have enough experience.
“By August I had been unemployed for five months. My mother was very sick, and we were desperate. Then in August, just before the start of the last school term of the year, my father was told by his school they were retiring him. His pension would be $20 per month. I had no income. I was desperate. My mother was in pain. She was dying.”
His last sentence hung in the courtroom long after the words were spoken.
“I used to teach my students about the white flag being used to surrender. So I thought perhaps if I went to the Ministry of Education with my own white flag they would reconsider their decision. I know in Zimbabwe it is dangerous to protest, but the Haig Convention recognises the use of the white flag to surrender. I didn’t write anything on the sign, because what could I say?
“I was only outside the Ministry offices for half an hour. They sent the police to arrest me for conducting an unlawful protest – I hadn’t asked the police for permission to demonstrate. “
Stephen Musango concluded his testimony and sat down. Justice Moyo glanced at her watch, and called a recess for lunch.
“The prosecutor and the defence attorney will make their statements this afternoon. I would ask you both to keep your statements brief and to the point. No more than five minutes each. Am I making myself clear, Mr Sibanda?”
He smirked in agreement, and gathering up his papers shuffled out of the courtroom. The door closed behind him. James Mushore was talking to his client, him voice so low nobody could hear what he was saying.
“Mr Mushore, please approach the bench.”
He hurried over to stand before the judge. She beckoned him to move closer and spoke to him. Although Stephen could not see his attorney’s face nor hear what they were saying he saw James Mushore nodding as he answered her questions. The conversation last a couple of minutes.
“You have to excuse me, Stephen,” James told him, putting his papers into his briefcase. “I have to go out urgently, but I will be back in time for the afternoon session.”
“James, please don’t leave me alone with the guards,” Stephen begged . “They might not bring me back here - “
“You’re staying here, and the bailiff will wait with you," James interrupted his client. "He has his instructions not to intimidate or hurt you. Don’t say anything to him or anyone else.”
James swept out of the courtroom.
James followed the swaggering Jason Sibanda back into the courtroom shortly after two. Stephen looked at his face, searching for a clue as to his lawyer’s sudden disappearance, but could see nothing.
“Mr Sibanda,” Justice Moyo summoned the prosecutor.
“Justice Moyo,” his sneering statement was deliberately designed to offend. The judge’s face betrayed no emotion. He paused for effect, his eyes wandering around the courtroom as though he was a king about to address his subjects. Before Justice Moyo could admonish him he continued.
“My statement is short and direct. The charge of treason is very serious indeed, and the accused is so desperate to conceal the true reason for his actions he is prepared to lie. He knows he will face the death penalty when he is found guilty, and he is scared. And he should be, because I have found the real reason behind his actions.”
The expectant hush in the courtroom fuelled Sibanda’s performance, the same way an actor is encouraged by the audience’s applause.
“His use of a white board to protest is simply a disguise for his allegiance to the British,” Sibanda proclaimed, pointing an angry finger at Stephen. “He used a white board to signify his ties to Zimbabwe’s former white colonial masters, and he chose his vocation in order to brainwash his students with Rhodesian propaganda supplied to him by Britain. The so-called ‘extra lessons’ were not designed to help his students! They were being brainwashed, plain and simple!”
The audible gasp from the courtroom was followed by a lot of jeers from the gallery. This time Justice Moyo’s gavel had no effect on the crowd, so she shouted to the bailiff to get the room cleared. As the courtroom guards approached the gallery the crowd quietened. Justice Moyo slammed the gavel on the desk.
“Sit down!” she ordered the spectators, who instantly obeyed. Furiously she turned to the prosecutor, who was revelling in the reaction his words had caused.
“Mr Sibanda, you are a poor excuse for a Zimbabwean public officer!” she thundered, as the smirk dropped from his face. “Not only is there absolutely no credibility to your accusations, but you have made a mockery of Zimbabwe’s justice system. You have used our courtrooms to unfairly hold a man for 18 months. This is a serious abuse of your power, and you can be sure I shall be taking this matter further.”
Jason Sibanda’s arrogance slipped. For a moment Justice Moyo believed she saw fear in his eyes, but she realised it was not fear.
It was anger; anger at her response to his case. She turned towards the defendant’s table.
“Mr Musango,” his lawyer helped him to his feet.
“I cannot undo the terrible injustice our country has served upon you. Your continued incarceration for a peaceful protest is unforgivable. You had every reason to do what you did, and you choose to make a peaceful statement; not only about the unfair way you have been treated by our Ministry of Education but also about the terrible state of Zimbabwe’s education system. You have done nothing wrong. The only injustice here is the way you have been used by a public official in a disgusting attempt to further his own political allegiances.
“I order that all charges be dropped. The defendant is free to go.”
This time Justice Moyo did not use her gavel to restore order to her courtroom. Instead she watched the gallery cheering and ululating in joy. She saw James Mushore gently telling a weeping Stephen Musango that he was finally free. She glanced at the bailiff; he and the court officials were standing in a small group. Their faces were unreadable, but she saw respect and pride in their eyes.
Finally she looked at Jason Sibanda. He stared back at her, furious. She knew he would try to make her pay for his very public humiliation.
“Just let him try,” she thought as she walked out of the courtroom to her chambers. “Today justice was done.”
It was a good feeling.
Just before dinner that evening, Justice Moyo’s husband answered the telephone.
“Hold on, Mr Mushore,” he said handing the receiver to his wife.
“It is done, Your Honour,” she smiled at the elation in his voice. “Stephen and his father passed through the Beit Bridge border post an hour ago. He’s safe now. He looks forward to the day he can return home to thank you in person for helping get the passports issued so quickly.”
“I understand Mr Sibanda applied for an arrest warrant for Mr Musango earlier this evening,” she told him. “He’s going to very disappointed when he serves it tomorrow. Zimbabwe needs people like Stephen Musango. I pray it will not be long before he can safely return home to teach our children.”
Gently she replaced the receiver and returned to the dinner table. The thought of Stephen and Mr Musange eating dinner with Stephen’s sisters tomorrow night made her smile.
“How was your day?” Mr Moyo asked his wife.
“Today was a good day for justice,” she replied.
Written for round 01/2013 of