Zimbabwe’s military action leading to Robert Mugabe’s resignation was legal, a High Court judge has ruled, in a key decision as the military seeks to show that its moves were not a coup.
Experts said it sets a dangerous precedent for the military to step in again. Meanwhile, officials allied with Mugabe were in court on Saturday alleging retaliation after the military stepped in.
High Court Judge George Chiweshe, a retired general, on Friday ruled that the military’s actions “in intervening to stop the takeover” of Mugabe’s functions “by those around him are constitutionally permissible and lawful.”
The military stepped in almost two weeks ago after Mugabe’s firing of deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa amid fears that the 93-year-old president’s unpopular wife was positioning herself to take power.
The judge said the actions ensured that non-elected individuals do not exercise executive functions, an apparent reference to then-first lady Grace Mugabe.
Separately, the judge said Mugabe’s firing of Mnangagwa as vice president was illegal. Mnangagwa was sworn in as president on Friday in a whirlwind reversal of fortunes, becoming just the second leader of Zimbabwe after Mugabe’s 37-year-rule.
The judge’s decisions were quickly criticized both by legal and rights experts and by close allies of Mugabe and his wife.
“If these breathtaking High Court Orders granted in Harare yesterday represent what is being peddled as a ‘new path,’ then please pray for Zimbabwe,” tweeted minister of higher education Jonathan Moyo, the most vocal of the Mugabes’ allies.
The southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, Dewa Mavhinga, called the rulings “incredible” and said on Twitter: “Strange, captured judiciary?”
Zimbabwe’s military sent tanks into the streets overnight on Nov. 14, taking control of the state broadcaster and announcing that Robert Mugabe had been put under house arrest. It said it was pursuing “criminals” close to Mugabe accused of harming the country’s economy.
The military’s move led the ruling party to turn against Mugabe, launching impeachment proceedings before Mugabe on Tuesday announced his resignation, while tens of thousands of Zimbabweans took to the streets in a military-backed demonstration urging him to step aside.
Mnangagwa, who fled the country shortly after his firing, said upon his return he had been in “constant contact” with the military during his absence.
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Many in the international community have avoided calling the military’s actions a coup, instead urging that Zimbabwe’s authorities respect the rule of law. Some Zimbabweans have congratulated the military, taking selfies with soldiers and sending up a cheer for army commander Constantino Chiwenga at Friday’s inauguration.
Zimbabwean lawyer Alex Magaisa said the judge’s rulings “may come to haunt Mnangagwa’s government” by setting a precedent in “effectively legalizing military intervention in the affairs of government.”
He also wrote Saturday that “it is interesting to note that the order was granted by ‘consent’ which suggests that Mugabe agreed to it. If he did, it could be that it was part of Mugabe’s exit deal.”