South Africa’s Highest Court Says Ending Scorpions Invalid

South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled legislation which replaced the Scorpions crime fighting unit with the Hawks was “constitutionally invalid,” because the Hawks are “vulnerable to political interference.”

The ruling African National Congress in October 2008 disbanded the Scorpions, which had investigated corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, who became party leader the year before. Prosecutors dropped charges of corruption, racketeering, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion against Zuma in April 2009, the same month he won elections to become the leader of Africa’s biggest economy.

Changes to the South African Police Services Amendment Act doesn’t pass “constitutional muster” as the Hawks are “insufficiently insulated from political influence in its structure and functioning,” the Johannesburg-based Constitutional Court said on its website today. This created a “significant risk of political influence and interference.”

The Scorpions, trained with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.K.’s Scotland Yard, was set up in 1999 to stamp out corruption and organized crime too sophisticated for regular police. The unit investigated Zuma, former police chief Jackie Selebi and dozens of legislators for graft. All opposition parties favored retaining the unit.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance said the ruling was “a vindication of the DA’s deep and longstanding concerns over the disbandment of the Scorpions,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Protecting ANC’

The 2008 legislation brought members of the Scorpions into the Hawks, which became a new anti-crime unit answering directly to the police ministry and no longer working with the National Prosecuting Authority in preparing cases for trial.

Today’s ruling by Judges Dikgang Moseneke and Edwin Cameron upheld a second appeal by businessman Hugh Glenister to have the bill scrapped. He lost a previous appeal a day before the act was approved by the ANC-led parliament.

Plans by the government to disband the unit were aimed at protecting ANC members and would undermine the fight against crime, Glenister said in court documents.

The legislation enacted by Parliament was intended to give the Hawks greater independence and to shield it from possible interference, the Department of Justice said in an e-mailed statement. “Steps will be taken to give effect to this judgment.”

The Constitutional Court said it suspended its “declaration of constitutional invalidity” for 18 months to allow parliament to “remedy the defect” in the law.

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