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Delivering justice in Zimbabwe’s courts

Woman crossing the street in front of Mutare Criminal Magistrates Court

Mutare Criminal Magistrates Court (Image: Tracy Mutowekuziva)

Tracy Mutowekuziva

Legal Intern at Transparency International Zimbabwe, Mutare Office.

After she was assaulted, bribes almost prevented Tsitsi’s court case from being heard, but she was determined to get justice.

In 2017, Tsitsi Mujuru was heavily pregnant when she suffered a severe beating — from her partner, his uncle and one of his friends. She had moved in with her partner’s family while expecting their child, having worked for the family as a housemaid. But her partner’s father was a prominent local pastor, with status which meant the family did not want their son marrying a former maid.

The beating was intended to make 21-year-old Tsitsi run away. With injuries to her back and limbs, she took refuge in her aunt’s house. But when she reported the attack to the police, she found officers were reluctant to take her statement, because the accused partner had an influential father.

When Tsitsi persisted, they eventually sent her for the medical examination needed for an affidavit that could be used as evidence in the case. Procedures require the police to collect the affidavit from the hospital. According to the hospital, they did. But when this crucial piece of evidence went missing, the police denied ever having fetched it.

Hospital staff had been lax about asking the police to sign for the document, so no one knew who had taken it. Tsitsi pressed the police to pursue her case, but they said that without the medical evidence, they could not.

A wider web of bribery and corruption

It’s an all too familiar scenario across Zimbabwe, where corruption frequently denies people their right to legal justice.

But unwilling to give up, Tsitsi took her case to Transparency International Zimbabwe (TI Zimbabwe) in the nearby city of Mutare. Staff receive frequent reports of bribery and corruption by police officers and throughout the court system, and immediately recognised Tsitsi’s complaints as part of a wider picture.

According to the latest Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) — Africa, which surveyed more than 47,000 people in 35 African nations about their day-to-day experiences of corruption, 28 per cent of citizens who encountered the police paid bribes to officers in the last year. In Zimbabwe, the bribery rate for the police is 24 per cent, while 25 per cent of people think most or all judges and magistrates are corrupt.

Pushing to be heard in court

Staff from TI Zimbabwe’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) helped Tsitsi build a strong case by asking whether she had any other medical evidence of the injuries from her assault. Luckily, a doctor had recorded her injuries during a routine maternity check-up. ALAC staff persuaded the local prosecutor to accept Tsitsi’s maternity record as evidence, and the case was scheduled for court.

But the hearing was repeatedly cancelled or delayed, or Tsitsi was given incorrect information about the time and room of the hearing, then told it had been postponed because she was absent.

It’s a scenario well-known to ALAC staff. Police, prosecutors and court officials are routinely bribed to stall hearings, until plaintiffs are frustrated enough to withdraw their case or until the media and public are no longer interested in the outcome.

ALAC staff suspected that someone was paying the courts to prevent the case from being heard. If procedures did begin, they were soon adjourned and Tsitsi faced the intimidating presence of the pastor’s family and senior church figures. But with the ALAC’s support, she did not drop the case as her opponents were hoping.

ALAC staff coached her to answer lawyers’ questions in court, and represented her at sessions when work and childcare responsibilities prevented her from attending.

Almost two years after the assault, Tsitsi achieved justice. Her attackers were found guilty and sentenced to two months in prison or a fine of US$250.

Measures to promote justice

The case is already creating a ripple effect, deterring police and court officials from demanding bribes and encouraging people to speak out against legal corruption.

TI Zimbabwe is informing senior legal officials of cases like Tsitsi’s and has made recommendations to help ensure everyone can obtain justice. These include pressing for an independent board to monitor judicial integrity, and for upgraded computer systems to track hospital and police records, making it harder for vital evidence to disappear.

The GCB shows that 45 per cent of Zimbabweans believe ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption. Tsitsi’s case proves that they’re right — spurring more people to report corruption when they see it and driving positive change.

Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption. With more than 100 offices in more than 60 countries, ALACs provide an accessible, effective way for people to report corrupt and demand action. Learn more:

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This article was written as part of the Global Corruption Barometer 2019 — Africa, the largest, most detailed survey of citizens’ views on corruption and their direct experiences of bribery in Africa.