Saturday, October 24, 2020

Action on judges was long in the making

Three months before four Botswana High Court judges were suspended for receiving housing allowances while occupying institutional houses, the Ministry of Defence Justice and Security issued a Cabinet Memorandum relating to judges’ accommodation.

The timing between the suspension of the judges and the Cabinet Memo suggests that the issue of accommodation and housing allowances was discussed behind Cabinet closed doors in the months preceding their suspension.

Minutes of Cabinet meetings are, however, secret and the background information that informed the Cabinet Memorandum have not been made public.

The Cabinet Memorandum dated May 6, 2015, Ministerial File No MDJS (S) 1/13/32 1 provides that when a judge “… takes up occupation of an official free residence and when he or she vacates it, he or she shall sign the appropriate house Occupation and Vacation Certificates which is required by the housing officer”.

It emerged in a Ministry of Defence Justice and Security internal audit compiled in May 2016 that the Occupation and Vacation certificates are instrumental in determining whether judges received housing allowances unproceduraly.

The issue of judges housing allowances allegedly cropped up again two months later on the sidelines of the annual Judicial Conference in Mahalapye last year July.

Detailing events leading to the decision to have Justice Dingake, Justice Garekwe, Justice Letsididi and Justice Busang investigated by the police over housing allowance which were erroneously paid to them, a petition signed last year by 12 and handed to the Judicial Services Commission, the judges stated that: “In the last week of July 2015, the judiciary held its annual judicial conference in Mahalapye, where the main theme was the resourcing of the judiciary. The conference resolved that the leadership of the judiciary should seek resources to train staff. 

States the petition: “The Chief Justice was aggrieved by the resolution taken by the conference on the issue of training, and the whole night of Friday July 31, he was continuously fuming about this resolution. On the morning of August 1, 2015 at breakfast, the Chief Justice was sitting amongst some judges, registrars and administrative staff, and continued with his training complaint, and then accused some of the judges who were vocal about the training issue that they had been receiving housing allowance when they were not entitled to, and that he would use the issue to destroy their careers. And further that he would ensure that they never become chief justices of the Republic of Botswana on the basis that they were not fit and proper. He also threatened to publish the issue of their housing allowance in the newspapers so as to destroy (their) careers. In the course of the tirade he instructed the Registrar of the High Court of Botswana, Mr Michael Motlhabi to submit the list of those judges first thing (that) Monday morning.”

The petition alleges that Chief Justice Maruping Dibotelo “pronounced his intent to destroy careers long before he conveniently convened the Judicial Service Commission to rubber stamp his agenda to destroy careers. We believe that had the Honourable Chief Justice divulged his intention to destroy careers to the Judicial Service Commission, they would not have rubber stamped his clearly malicious agenda.

The Sunday Standard can further reveal that at a meeting between the Chief Justice and President Ian Khama, where a decision to suspend the four judges was taken, the President wanted to suspend all 12 judges who had signed the petition. Chief Justice Dibotelo, however, advised the President against doing so reasoning that it would lead to a judicial crisis. Justice Dibotelo proposed that only the four judges should be suspended in the meantime. It was agreed that the remaining eight would be dealt with in due course.

In a bid to head off a possible judicial crisis, the Office of the President approached a number of judges who had signed the petition and promised them amnesty in exchange for withdrawing their signatures. Three judges withdrew their signatures.

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