HARARE (Reuters) - A Zimbabwean judge freed ousted finance minister Ignatius Chombo on bail on Thursday in a ruling that underlined judicial independence just three weeks after the army helped depose Robert Mugabe.
Chombo, a senior member of the ‘G40’ faction of the ruling party that was targeted in the military’s Nov. 15 intervention, was dragged from his home in the middle of the night and held incommunicado by soldiers at an undisclosed location for a week.
During that time he was beaten, according to his lawyer. He was arrested by police on his release and charged with fraud and abuse of office relating to his time as a government minister over a decade ago.
The Harare magistrate’s court denied him bail.
However, High Court judge Edith Mushore condemned that ruling as “littered with mis-directions” and “wading into the muddy court of public opinion” after the massive army-backed protests that helped topple Mugabe after 37 years in power.
Chombo, 65, was ordered to be released on $5,000 bail, surrender his passport and the title deeds of his Harare mansion and report to a police station in the capital three times a day.
The tone and substance of Mushore’s ruling also sent a stern message to the army-backed administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa about the independence of the courts and the primacy of the law, aspects of public life often ignored by Mugabe.
During his detention by the military, Chombo had been denied basic rights enshrined in the constitution such as access to justice and presumption of innocence, Mushore said.
In particular, she said Zimbabweans needed to know they “can sleep at night” without the fear of arbitrary detention in secret locations beyond the reach of lawyers or family - a common feature of the police state run by Mugabe.
“The public in Zimbabwe needs to know that they have a right to access to justice,” she said.
Chombo was one of several G40 figures detained during the military’s “Operation Restore Legacy” that was officially launched to remove “criminals” around Mugabe.
Most Zimbabweans interpreted this as meaning Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace, who was positioning herself as a successor to her 93-year-old husband at the expense of Mnangagwa, who was purged from the ruling party in early November.
Chombo’s lawyer says he will deny the charges when his trial starts. In a cursory analysis, Mushore characterised the state’s case against him as “mere allegation”.
Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg