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Judges quit in row in S. Africa

A South African judge who defied the Prime Minister and blew the lid off corruption and the misuse of millions of dollars of public money by the now-defunct Department of Information now has shocked the legal profession by resigning from the bench.

The resignation has caused widespread speculation here about conflicts between the judiciary and the government over some appointments to the bench, and about a crisis of conscience for some judges in applying laws they consider contrary to the rule of law or unjust.

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The judge is Anton Mostert, a brilliant lawyer, and one of the country's youngest justices.

He uncovered evidence of corruption when he was sitting as a one-man commissions of inquiry into breaches of the exchange control regulations 15 months ago.

Among other things, he found that government officials had siphoned off about Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city.

The judge called a press conference, but just before it was to start, Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha, urgently summoned him to Pretoria, the country's administrative capital, and asked him to suppress the evidence until his completed report was delivered to the state president.

After a blazing row, Mr. Justice Mostert walked out on Prime Minister Botha and published evidence that shook the nation and finally resulted in the resignation of a senior Cabinet minister and, ultimately, of a former South Africa state president.

Judge Mostert paid for his actions by being fired as head of the exchange commission. He returned to his post as an ordinary judge in Natal Province.

All he has been prepared to say about his resignation is that he is dissatisfied with the way judges are being treated by the government and with certain controversial appointments to the bench that have been made recently.

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Concern about Judge Moster's resignation has been increased by the resignation, apparently quite independently, and on the very same day, of another judge, Mervyn King, who is also a young man and also highly regarded.

Mr. Justice King said he decided to leave the bench "because of a conflict of conscience" about having to apply certain of the government's discriminatory race laws.

One case involved an Asian couple who were taken to court because they were living in an apartment in a technically "white" area of Johannesburg.

The judge told them in court that he was legally obliged to have them evicted because "as a judge in a court of law, I am obliged to give effect to the provisions of an act of Parliament."

But he added most significantly: "Speaking for myself, and if I were sitting as a court of equity, I would have come to the assistance of the appellant" -- meaning the Asian couple.

"Unfortunately ," he said, he could not do this because of the law.

One of South Africa's best known legal academics, Prof. John Dugard, professor of law of the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, the country's leading English- language university, said:

"The government should realize that laws of the kind it has enacted place a severe strain on judicial conscience.

"If future resignations are to be avoided, the government will have to consider eliminating the areas which give rise to the most serious conflicts of conscience."


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