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August 14, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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The Winding Path

Ben Paradza is a new Fellow in Victoria’s Policy Studies Department. He has been a Zimbabwean guerilla fighter, a High Court judge and then one of the many political refugees of Mugabe’s reign of power in Zimbabwe. He talks to SALIENT volunteer Tania Mead over a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Very few in the judicial system today can boast a background in guerilla warfare as proof of their hard-earned ascension to the upper echelons of society. But for High Court Judge Benjami Paradza, fighting for the independence of his country in the 1970s was the brutal reality for those who wished to see the black majority have ruling power in Zimbabwe. The segregationist ruling of Ian Smith’s government was overturned in 1980, and the country began the uneasy process of democraticisation.

Sitting in a small room in Victoria’s Policy Studies section, Paradza (I’m encouraged to call him Ben) hardly gives off the rebellious image you might expect from a one-time guerilla commander. Open and friendly, he speaks with some hesitancy, but also gravity, and it is not hard to imagine him laying down judiciary precedents in a courtroom situation. He also takes two biscuits when offered. Clearly even judges are not immune to the charms of dunking a Super Wine. And he drinks tea. I always like tea drinkers.

“Coming back into the system of essays and tutorials ‘was a big change’. It was part of the rehabilitation process for all these people who had been in the war, who one way or another had to find a way of coming back and having meaningful lives.” Andrew Ladley

The path from guerilla, to High Court official, to refugee and finally to Policy Studies Director Andrew Ladley’s office in Wellington was a trying and at times highly dangerous one for Paradza. His initial studies interrupted by the war for independence, he returned with the view to completing his degree. “Law has always been a part of me, and at some point in my life I had to qualify as a lawyer.” Coming back into the system of essays and tutorials “was a big change” he says. “It was part of the rehabilitation process for all these people who had been in the war, who one way or another had to find a way of coming back and having meaningful lives.”

Having a meaningful life however, is not the daily reality for many Zimbabweans. With inflation through the roof (or more realistically, through the floor) at one million dollars to the pound and Operation Murambatsvina (Clean Out Filth) having demolished thousands of homes and livelihoods, as well as continuing human rights abuses by the government, the daily grind is grim indeed. Politically motivated arrests of the opposing Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party members are one of the many ways the Mugabe regime has been instilling a stifling climate of fear in the country.

It was against one of these unfair arrests that Paradza ruled, declaring that the Executive Mayor of Harare, Elias Mudzuri, (a member of the MDC) be released from custody, after he was arrested for holding a meeting, allegedly without police clearance. He also ruled that the forced eviction of 54 white farmers was similarly illegal. He insists that “when I made those rulings . . honestly speaking I had not yet considered that it was important to worry about the politics of the matter.” Tellingly, he was warned by others more removed from the system that he was “very likely to get in trouble,” but he had faith in the motto of ‘Do Justice without Fear’. “I had done nothing wrong, I did not fear for my life at that stage,” he affirms.

It was not until after his subsequent arrest and trial, one month after ordering the release of Mudzuri, that Paradza realised all was not right. On trumped up charges citing that he had allegedly obstructed the course of justice, he was arrested and jailed for two nights before being released on bail and charged 30,000 Zimbabwean dollars. There were lice and mosquitoes, and the communal toilet did not flush,” he said in another interview. “The smell was unbearable. I felt humiliated and degraded.” For someone whose training emphasised the inalienable right of every person to a fair trial, and the gravity of convicting an innocent person, this turn of events was unfairly ironic. “When I trained as a lawyer I was told that it should never happen that an innocent person is found guilty, it shouldn’t… it shouldn’t.” His emphasis on shouldn’t was acutely painful, because of course in Paradza’s case, the unthinkable did happen, an innocent High Court Judge being found culpable. “We used to say that it was better for ten guilty people to be acquitted than to find one innocent person guilty. It was our philosophy, part of the training of our minds. I couldn’t accept that a person who is innocent, like me, could be found guilty. That’s when I realised the danger.”

Unbeknownst to Paradza, both Amnesty International and The International Commission of Jurists had taken notice of the unconstitutional procedures and begun campaigning on his behalf. Unsurprisingly, Mugabe took no notice. Paradza’s rulings amounted to a slap in the face for the totalitarian President, who had zero tolerance for non-compliance within his judiciary. The trial went ahead. “This whole trial was a set-up,” affirms Paradza, with fewer outward signs of bitterness than I had expected. “In the process of selection of the judge who presided over the matter, it was quite clear that it was not done above board, and the judge who was selected had a history of being part of the system.” The judge in question had been part of the group standing behind Mugabe during all the years of conflict in Malawi, and his selection was done “with the clear knowledge that he had a mission to accomplish, which he did, of finding me guilty.”

Paradza leans forward in his chair and recounts a bizarre tale of judicial corruption: “The key witness (for the state) was asked by my lawyer to agree that the charges raised against me were baseless. He said yes.” The conviction went ahead regardless, and it became apparent that it was no longer safe for Paradza to remain in the country. “For a long time I still believed that there was something wrong. I thought there was some mistake somewhere which was going to be corrected, until after the trial and judgment and I then realised that this was not safe.” He fled to South Africa, where he remained for months until he managed to escape to the UK.

In an Amnesty on Campus event staged recently as part of Freedom Week, the dire situation that Paradza was in was highlighted in a speech he made to the many students who turned up to ‘free’ their lecturers. “When I did not have clothes, shelter, and food, was lost and lonely, far away from my wife and children, unsure of when next I would see them ever or at all, for three months, [Amnesty] provided me with an apartment, money for food and clothes, and more which I sent home to Zimbabwe to my family.” Only able to visit their father and husband for short periods of time, Paradza’s wife and children were also under 24 hour surveillance by the government in Zimbabwe. The situation was no longer safe for them either.

This is where Sigrid Rausing comes in. Heir to a hefty fortune from plastic packaging giant Tetra Pak, the Swedish based entrepreneur has taken a significant interest in human rights cases such as Paradza’s. A fund was initially offered to the University of London as a scholarship, but when Paradza was not able to secure a visa for the UK, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) extended a call to other nations to find a place for him. “I was asked to name a country which I would like to live in. I said I don’t mind, I can go to any county as long as I have something to do and a reasonable life.” The first country to respond was New Zealand.

As Ladley points out, “it’s very easy for us to see refugees just as victims, and of course they are, but not as assets,” referencing the refugee policies that seem to work on an avoidance policy, as opposed to maximising the skills that many refugees bring to their adopted countries. The self proclaimed Tweedle Dum to Paradza’s Tweedle Dee, it is in part thanks to Ladley’s contacts at the University of London that helped secure Sigrid Rausing’s donation for Victoria, granting Paradza a secured two years as a Fellow in the Policy Studies department. The first of its kind in the world, the scholarship is essentially for a “refugee scholar who has escaped from threatening circumstances” explains Ladley. “The idea is that it is a bridge between the trauma of the past and whatever the future will be.” The two work together on ensuring the continuity of the scholarship, securing funding and “contributing to the field of Peace and Conflict studies as required.” Their work also focuses on issues directly related to Paradza’s experiences in Zimbabwe, through studying the rule of law and judicial impartiality.

Conscientious New Zealanders may lament our relative inability to influence foreign despots such as Mugabe, but it would appear that as a nation we have affected the life of Paradza from an early stage. As a young student, he studied at the school of Kiwi missionary Arthur Todd, and decades later overruled the government’s unfair and illegal actions against Todd’s daughter Judith. Well-known for her critique of the segregationist Smith government, and not afraid to continue raising her voice about current human rights violations, Mugabe attempted to strip Todd of her Zimbabwean citizenship. But as Paradza highlights, “being a judge is the highest honour any lawyer would hope for, judgments you write must set down precedents for people to follow. I was hoping that my name would stand up high as a fair, honest and competent judge.” Fair and competent, however, were not on Mugabe’s checklist for ideal members of his judicial system. Unsurprisingly for one who has been so woefully mistreated by political interference, Paradza continues to have a very secure notion of the importance of unpressured decision making. “What is important is the knowledge that when you apply your mind to the matter, it is done without any other considerations, without looking over your shoulder, as to who is watching or what so and so will say.”

A little over one month after Paradza’s arrival in Wellington, his wife and three children joined him in what was “a fairly emotional reunion”, he remembers. Two of his children are at high schools in Wellington, and the third is studying at Victoria. Together with Ladley he is working to secure the possibility of another academic being able to find sanctuary and purpose at Victoria. As Ladley points out, “Ben is not the first human rights victim out of Zimbabwe, and he will certainly not be the last.” As long as China continues to support the Mugabe regime with currency and fuel and the international community remains complacent, it is entirely probable that the reign of an authoritarian government will continue to thrive, but “should anything happen to him, then maybe we will start to see some change” Paradza hopes. Ladley explains that although logically there must be a bottom to the downward moral and economic spiral, “in practice nobody has found it, and it appears to be able to go down indefinitely.”

All that remains to be done, in the words of one who should know, is personal activism. Urging students to take a stand at the Amnesty caging last Thursday, Paradza made it clear that this was perhaps one of the last viable ways of influencing regimes such as Mugabe’s. “You can voice your concern about intimidation and harassment. You can demand that the perpetrators of violence against him be brought to justice. You might think that campaigning from New Zealand is too far away to make a difference. But each of us has to reach for the steps that work for us. I urge you to write a letter. Take your own step. Become active. The pen is mightier, as they say, than the sword.”

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