The trial of Thabani Mpofu, a researcher in MDC Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s office, on charges of failing to renew a firearm licence and failure to keep the firearm in a secure place, are an eye opener for anyone who has not seen Zimbabwe’s criminal justice system at work at first hand.
The State prosecutors, the police and the presiding magistrate sitting at a Harare court have shown an alarming ignorance as to the requirements for the issuance of a valid search warrant and an equal ignorance as to the requirements for the lawful execution of the same.
During the proceedings, the State witnesses all claimed that the search they conducted of Thabani Mpofu’s premises and which led to the charges, was one for documentation Mr. Mpofu is alleged to have gathered relating to corruption by senior government officials. These witnesses, all police officers, were unable to tell the court what offence arises from the possession of such documentation. Furthermore, the search warrant that the police issued to themselves and which purported to authorise the search, makes no mention of any documents of this nature and thus could not justify their seizure.
However, undeterred by these legal niceties, the police proceeded to search Mr. Mpofu’s premises in the hope, it was stated in court, of being able to uncover an offence. They thought that hope was realised when they discovered a firearm, for which the licence had allegedly expired, in a built-in wall cupboard. The police proceeded to arrest Mr. Mpofu on the basis that the firearm was not kept in a safe weighing at least 50kgs or in a gun cabinet. These two places, the police claimed, are the only safe places in which a firearm might be kept securely in terms of the law. In fact, the Firearms Regulations (of which the police seemed to be unaware) specifically define a wall cupboard as one of several possible secure places, provided the cupboard has doors and a strong lock. The police made no attempt to ascertain whether the wall cupboard met these specifications. Two police detectives claimed not to be able to remember whether the cupboard had doors at all. Mr. Mpofu thus appears to have been arrested on a charge which had not even been investigated.
This leaves the alleged failure to renew a firearm licence – a trivial, technical offence which, according to a Schedule of Fines maintained by the police themselves, attracts a $5.00 fine.
Despite the minor nature of this alleged infringement of the Act, not one, but three Public Prosecutors have been lined up to try to secure Mr. Mpofu’s conviction. Seven police officers have spent over a week milling around the court to be available to give evidence and observe the proceedings when it is hoped that they have better things to do. Members of the public attending the trial were questioned by the ZRP at the police post within the magistrates court as to who they were and why they were at the court. Personal details were carefully and pointedly recorded. The police officers were genuinely confused when asked what right they had to question those attending the trial. The response was that as police officers they could question whoever they want whenever and wherever they want. All other matters that were pending or in progress before the court have been swept aside to make way for this trial.
So why has so much of the State’s human and financial resources (and we need to add to that mentioned already, the salaries of the magistrate, the court orderly, the prison officer and interpreter in attendance) been mobilised to secure a conviction in a $5.00 offence – one which is usually dealt with by way of an “admission of guilt fine” at the local police station?
Early in the proceedings, Defence Counsel argued that the chief prosecutor in the case had a grave conflict of interest. He had been named as one of the people who is a subject of the documentation pertaining to corruption complied by Mr. Mpofu and which inspired the search of Mr. Mpofu’s premises during which the firearm was discovered. This, apparently, is not the motivation for the massive deployment of State resources against Mr. Mpofu. The magistrate ruled that no such conflict of interest exists.
So what then, is the reason for this huge drain on the tax payer’s pocket? Only those who do not believe that policing, the workings of the Attorney-General’s Office and the criminal justice system are in dire need of reform, are left scratching their heads for an answer.