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Former Zimbabwean Judge admitted to NZ Bar

30 August 2011

It cannot happen very often that a former judge is admitted to the bar. Yet that is exactly what did occur in the Wellington High Court on 5 August 2011.

Ben Paradza fled from his position as a High Court judge in Zimbabwe in fear of his life in 2006. He had been subjected to charges and a trial criticised internationally as being trumped up to remove him from office.

Now, a little over five years after arriving in New Zealand and around 25 years after he was admitted in Zimbabwe, he has been admitted in New Zealand.

“It was a really momentous time for me,” Ben says.

“I couldn’t believe that I was really back in court. It felt like coming back home. I have always been a courtroom lawyer. Standing in front of the judge that day was the most exciting moment of my life in New Zealand. It feels like I’ve jumped a very wide ditch and I’m on the other side.”

Gaining admission has been difficult, in the sense that he had to study and to look after his family and earn a living at the same time. But his path, Ben points out, was not as difficult as some as he was fully exempt from taking one of the six courses necessary to qualify for admission.

One of the features of his admission ceremony that impressed Ben was that the judge (Justice Joe Williams) was so good.

“He was witty and he was so warm ‒ to me in particular. He clearly shows that he is a judge who is comfortable with what he is doing as a judge. He makes it easy for the lawyers in front of him to excel.”

Ben came to New Zealand in May 2006, taking up the inaugural Sigrid Rausing Visiting Fellowship at Victoria University of Wellington for two years from June 2006 to June 2008. Following that, he worked at Whitireia Community Law Centre, where he is today.

After Ben was a hero of the liberation struggle against white minority rule in his country, President Robert Mugabe appointed him to the bench in 2001.

In light of the events that unfolded, many believe President Mugabe expected Ben to be yet another compliant judge.

"I took it more as an honour than anything – not being aware of the politics behind it," he says. “I took up that appointment in August 2001 and as far as I was concerned what I wanted to do most was earn my self-respect as a judge – to do as far as possible what was expected of a good judge.”

"During the course of my duties, certain matters were given to me of a political flavour. To me, that was neither here nor there. Whatever the case might be, I would handle it as professionally as I could without fear or favour in terms of my judicial oath of office."

What the world now knows, and agencies such as the International Commission of Jurists, United Nations and Amnesty International have publicly decried, is that Ben was arrested on charges of corruption and perverting the course of justice.

Media around the world have pointed to the fact that the judge was charged, tried and convicted after he had freed an opposition politician following a habeas corpus application. The politician, the mayor of Harare, had been charged with holding a political rally without the permission of the police and was being held in custody.

Justice Paradza ordered the man be freed, essentially on the basis that the meeting contained more civic leaders than political leaders and that no other leaders of the opposition political party had been present. (The Police did not comply with the judge's order, but when the mayor was brought to trial, the charges were dropped.)

Looking back, Ben realises that this was probably the last straw in a string of decisions he had made "honestly and to the best of my ability" but which "should have been made differently, according to the politicians".

There is a New Zealand connection to another Paradza judgment that went against the wishes of President Mugabe. He ordered the Government to issue a passport to New Zealander Judith Todd, the veteran human rights and democracy opponent of the Ian Smith government. She has been just as critical of Mugabe's human rights abuses as she had been of Smith's, and Mugabe has stripped her of Zimbabwean citizenship.

Following his trial and conviction, Ben was remanded for sentence and fled the country while on bail. "I realised that if I waited for sentence, my life was in danger. The conviction, to us, was obviously more of a political thing than a legal finding."

This article was published in LawTalk 779, 26 August 2011, page 7.

Last updated on the 17th August 2015