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Lawyers' dispute holds high treason trial hostage
|October 3, 2008
| Lawyers' dispute holds high treason trial hostage
A DISASTER that could have struck the main Caprivi high treason trial next week if a pay dispute involving five non-Namibian defence lawyers appearing in the trial was not resolved, was averted yesterday
A dispute over the principle of e qual pay for e qual work could have seen fiv e of the nine defe nce lawyers withdraw f rom the tr ial, throwing it into turmoil and an exte nded f orc ed postponement.
The dispute was however ironed out yesterday, with an a greeme nt reached th at wou ld now see all defence c ounsel in volved in the trial rece ive the sa me pay, the Dir ecto r of Leg al Aid in the M in istry of Justice, Vero Mba huurua, told The Nami bi an late y esterda y.
The issue brought the marathon trial to a halt this week, after the non-Namibian defence counsel involved in the case failed to appear in court for the continuation of the trial on Monday.
They then asked Judge Elton Hoff the next day for a postponement until Monday next week so that talks could in the meantime take place with officials in the Legal Aid Directorate and the Ministry of Justice in an attempt to resolve the dispute.
Greyson Nyoni, one of the non-Namibian lawyers who since April 2003 has been representing some of the 117 people indicted before Judge Hoff, told The Namibian yesterday that talks in connection with his and his non-Namibian colleagues' dissatisfaction were continuing.
He said he was hopeful that the issue would be resolved by Monday.
For a trial of which the main portion started more than four years ago in August 2004, where the 331st witness is now testifying in the main portion of the trial, and where the trial transcript stands at 25 930 typewritten pages, the consequences would be disastrous if some or all of the disaffected defence lawyers should withdraw from the matter at this stage.
Such a withdrawal is bound to force a lengthy postponement in the matter to give replacement defence counsel time to acquaint themselves with the record of the trial so far and to prepare for its continuation.
If that happens, 117 accused persons, most of whom have already spent more than nine years in custody, would also be bound to remain behind bars as unsentenced prisoners even longer while waiting for their trial to run its course.
According to Mbahuurua, he and the defence counsel were in discussions over the course of two days yesterday and the day before, and reached an agreement yesterday.
He said some of the reasons why Namibian and non-Namibian lawyers instructed by the Legal Aid Directorate to represent the people who are accused in the treason trial have been paid on two different scales was because the accommodation and travel expenses of the non-Namibians were paid by the Justice Ministry when the trial was still taking place at Grootfontein.
The lawyers' Namibian counterparts however were responsible for paying all these expenses out of their own pockets.
When the trial was moved to Windhoek in late 2005 this arrangement was not changed, probably through an oversight on both sides, Mbahuurua said.
It has now been agreed that all nine defence lawyers would be receiving the same remuneration, he said.
Mbahuurua declined revealing how much the lawyers involved in the trial are being paid by the Legal Aid Directorate.
The budget of the Legal Aid Directorate has however ballooned since the start of the treason trial.
In the last financial year before the trial was in progress, the Directorate had a budget of N$7,7 million.
It was up to N$11,9 million in the first financial year after the trial had started, and was budgeted at N$17,8 million for the current financial year.
CLOSE TO THE BRINK The chairs usually occupied by Zimbabwean lawyer Nyoni and four of his colleagues, fellow Zimbabweans Jonathan Samukange and Christopher Dube, and Zambian lawyers Victor Kachaka and Dr Winnie Sithole- Mwenda, where the treason trial is taking place in the High Court building at Windhoek Central Prison remained empty when the trial was supposed to continue on Monday.
On Tuesday, Nyoni addressed Judge Hoff to explain the situation.
Apologising for his and his colleagues' absence the day before, Nyoni said that, like teachers, lawyers are taught that they should not emphasise their earnings.
Their first duty is to society, and what they earn is not out of entitlement, but is a thank you from society, he said.
From the day that they became involved in the high treason case they have carried out their duties as normal - but at the same time, dissatisfaction was brewing in their ranks, Nyoni indicated.
He said when a point was finally reached that broke the camel's back, "it was difficult for me to dress up and come and face the honourable court and say, I'm not able to carry on with the case, because I have an issue with the Director of Legal Aid or with the Ministry".
While Nyoni and his colleagues did not want to reveal the details of the dispute with the Directorate of Legal Aid yesterday, it was understood that it was based on the fact that the four Namibian defence lawyers involved in the trial are being paid substantially higher monthly fees than their non-Namibian counterparts.
This is being regarded as unfair discrimination based on the lawyers' nationalities.
None of the six defence lawyers contacted by The Namibian yesterday wanted to reveal what the defence counsel are being paid on a monthly basis.
It is however understood that the non-Namibian lawyers' monthly salary is in the lower regions of the N$30 000s.
Addressing Judge Hoff on Tuesday, Nyoni indicated that he and his colleagues would not easily withdraw from the trial, but that this nevertheless was a possibility if the issue was not solved.
"(W)e believe that we'll have a proper interaction with the Ministry and resolve this matter, rather than abandon clients at this late stage," Nyoni told Judge Hoff on Tuesday.
He said: "We are bonded to these people, we have lived with them, they are now part of us.
We understand their wrongs, we understand their right and it is difficult for me to turn my back on them and walk back to Zimbabwe."
Having heard Nyoni, Judge Hoff commented: "(I)n my view the better option would be to have the matter resolved as soon as possible, because at this stage I do not even wish to think of the alternative, what would happen should the matter not be resolved.
That would gravely affect the future conduct of this trial, should even just one defence counsel withdraw as legal representative."
Former Police officer Herman Zeelie, who last week testified about the recovery of weaponry that is alleged to have been used by the separatist organisation blamed for surprise armed attacks at Katima Mulilo on August 2 1999, is scheduled to face cross-examination from the defence when the trial continues.
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