Botswana: Suspension of judges potentially threatens freedom of expression and judicial independence
Botswana’s authorities must lift the suspension of four High Court judges unfairly targeted if the independence of the judiciary is to be preserved, said Amnesty International and SADC Lawyers’ Association today following a High Court decision yesterday not to reinstate them.
The judges, Key Dingake, Mercy Thebe, Rainer Busanang and Modiri Letsididi were suspended on 28 August 2015 under Section 97 of the Botswana Constitution for alleged misconduct and bringing the judiciary into disrepute. This followed a petition signed by 12 judges, including the suspended four, calling for the impeachment of Chief Justice Maruping Dibotelo.
“The suspension of the four judges over a petition against the Chief Justice constitutes serious interference with their freedom of expression and is a grave threat to judicial independence in Botswana,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for Southern Africa.
“It appears that the judges were suspended because of their criticism of the Chief Justice. If this is the case, it’s a clear attack on their freedom of expression which undermines the independence of the judiciary.”
The four judges believe the disciplinary action was taken against them as they were seen to be the ring-leaders behind the petition against the Chief Justice.
Amnesty International and SADC Lawyers’ Association are calling for the immediate re-instatement of the four judges.
“The President of the Republic of Botswana currently holds the rotating position of chairperson of SADC. As such a lot is expected from the country in terms of leading from the front in observing human rights and the rule of law in the SADC region during this period.” said Makanatsa Makonese, Executive Secretary of the SADC Lawyers' Association.
“This case is about much more than the targeting of four judges and the curtailing of their freedom of expression and risks compromising the independence of the judiciary.”
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary recognize that the members of the judiciary are entitled to freedom of expression, provided that in exercising that right, they “shall always conduct themselves in a manner so as to preserve the dignity of their office and the impartiality and the independence of the judiciary” including “professional secrecy with regard to their deliberations and to confidential information acquired in the course of their duties other than in public proceedings, and shall not be compelled to testify on such matters.
Botswana’s president, Ian Khama suspended the four judges on 26 August 2015 after they wrote a letter, along with their eight counterparts to the Chief Justice Maruping Dibotelo complaining about the poor conditions of service in the Judiciary.
In the same letter, the 12 Judges also collectively disapproved of the conduct of the Chief Justice and questioned his suitability to hold office.
President Ian Khama on advice from the Judicial Service Commission then accused the four judges of “misbehaviour” and decided to suspend them.
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