BOTSWANA President Ian Khama has suspended four high court judges after a dispute over allowances turned acrimonious. The four were investigated for claiming housing allowances even though they had state accommodation.
The four were suspended, effective this week. A lawyer has described the suspension as undermining judicial independence.
Judges Key Dingake, Modiri Letsididi, Mercy Garekwe and Ranier Busang have been embroiled in a dispute with Chief Justice Maruping Dibotelo since early August over his decision to take them to the police for criminal investigation for making improper claims on housing allowances.
In a joint letter to Justice Dibotele, the four said they had told the accounting officer at the department of the administration of justice to stop their housing allowances because they had been provided with official housing. "It is further a matter of record that we are not the only judges to whom a housing allowance or other allowances have been paid by the administration of justice inadvertently when they were not entitled to the same. In this context, your selective approach is highly questionable, amounts to harassment and witch-hunting," they said.
According to the registrar and master of the high court, Michael Motlhabi, who is also the JSC secretary, the alleged payments amounted to an excess of 800,000 pula. "This was a matter that could not be adequately resolved internally," said Motlhabi.
The aggrieved judges contend in a letter that: "We also consider your letter referring a simple matter of an administrative lapse on the part of the administration of justice or its accounting officer to the police as highly defamatory in the civil and criminal sense. We shall in due course instruct our lawyers to sue for defamation of character and lay criminal charges of criminal defamation against you with the police."
Mboki Chilisa, a lawyer with Collins Chilisa Consultants, said the suspensions were a concern.
"It is an extremely serious matter because it goes to the integrity of the judiciary. It is a matter that affects judicial independence. A lot of lawyers view it is a battle between the executive and liberal judges," he said.
"This was a simple administrative matter that did not require a referral to the police."
Mr Khama established a tribunal to investigate whether the four could be removed from office for misbehaviour. In terms of section 97(5) of the constitution, the president can remove a high court judge from office if they are referred to a tribunal for investigation.
by Sello Motseta, BDLive