By Nomalanga Moyo
SW Radio Africa
14 April 2014
Thirty officials in the justice ministry have been suspended for allegedly stealing $700,000 that was meant for the upkeep of prisoners, State media reports indicate.
They include four senior accountants and two auditors in the justice ministry, as well as 24 prisons service officials, comprising the chief accounting officer and officers in the finance and procurement department.
The Sunday Mail newspaper reported that the officials operated as a syndicate that also includes as yet unidentified Treasury officials.
An internal audit uncovered the theft and the rampant abuse of public funds, according to the justice ministry’s secretary for legal affairs, Virginia Mabhiza, who also revealed that criminal investigators were now handling the case.
“Actually $700,000 was unaccounted for and when these accounting officers realised they would be exposed during the audit, they made a reverse transaction of at least $500,000,” the State-run newspaper quoted Mabhiza as saying.
The $200,000 has not been recovered.
The amount was an allocation from Treasury to prisons through the justice ministry, and was meant to cover daily expenses such as buying food for inmates.
The funds however never reached the intended beneficiaries after officials in the three departments connived to convert the money to personal use.
According to the Sunday Mail report, Treasury officials may have exploited known loopholes in the public finance management system to facilitate the scam.
Prisons officials would doctor quotations, purchase and receipt invoices for goods and services which, in some cases, had not been supplied.
The ministry of justice has said it will soon introduce measures to stem the looting. Some observers think this may be a bit late and say the ministry’s response is tantamount to securing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Former deputy justice minister and MDC-T MP for Harare West Jessie Majome told this station that prisons services officials have looted with impunity for years.
“The stealing has been going on for years and this goes to the very heart of the rule of law in this country. The looting, in the very ministry where justice and legal affairs are meant to be fixed, clearly shows that things have indeed fallen apart.”
Majome said it was criminal that countless prisoners have died either from starvation, absence of basic healthcare and a lack of warm clothing or clean water, yet money allocated for their welfare was being stolen.
“But then again this is what the ZANU PF government is like. It is greedy, it steals without conscience and doesn’t care about human suffering,” said Majome, who is also the shadow justice minister.
She said prisoners are a vulnerable group and by failing in its duty to provide for inmates the government was also exposing its very poor human rights record.
There are about 19,000 inmates in the country’s prisons who live in atrocious, overcrowded conditions across the country’s 55 facilities.
In October last year human rights activist Douglas Muzanenhamo, who spent a month in remand prison and was denied access to critical drugs, described conditions in Zimbabwe’s prisons as “hell on earth”.
Last year alone, at least 100 prisoners died from malnutrition, amid reports that they were surviving on less than a meal a day. Relief agency The Red Cross, which used to provide food assistance, withdrew in 2011 to focus on other areas.
The prisons service has several farms which are however underutilised, while hundreds of cattle belonging to the department have inexplicably disappeared.
MP Majome said if ZANU PF is serious about fighting corruption they also have to explain what happened to the prisons cattle herd.