HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe's military action leading to Robert Mugabe's resignation was legal, a High Court judge has ruled, as the military seeks to show its moves were not a coup. Experts said it sets a dangerous precedent for future interventions.
Meanwhile, the finance minister and other Mugabe allies were in court on Saturday alleging sometimes violent retaliation after the military stepped in.
High Court Judge George Chiweshe, a retired general, on Friday ruled that the military's actions "in intervening to stop the takeover" of Mugabe's functions "by those around him" were legal.
The military swept in almost two weeks ago after Mugabe's firing of deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa amid fears that the 93-year-old president's unpopular wife was positioning herself to take power.
The judge said the military's actions ensured that non-elected individuals did not exercise executive functions, an apparent reference to Grace Mugabe.
Separately, the judge said Mnangagwa's firing as vice president was illegal. Mnangagwa was sworn in as president on Friday in a whirlwind reversal of fortunes, becoming just the second leader of Zimbabwe after Mugabe's 37-year-rule.
The judge's decisions were quickly criticized both by legal and rights experts and by close Mugabe allies.
"If these breathtaking High Court Orders granted in Harare yesterday represent what is being peddled as a 'new path,' then please pray for Zimbabwe," tweeted minister of higher education Jonathan Moyo.
The southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, Dewa Mavhinga, called the rulings "incredible" and said on Twitter: "Strange, captured judiciary?"
Zimbabwe's military sent tanks into the streets overnight on Nov. 14, taking control of the state broadcaster and announcing that Robert Mugabe had been put under house arrest. It said it was pursuing "criminals" close to him accused of harming the economy.
The military's move led the ruling party to turn against Mugabe, launching impeachment proceedings before he announced his resignation Tuesday, while tens of thousands of Zimbabweans took to the streets in a military-backed demonstration urging him to step aside.
Mnangagwa, who fled the country after his firing, said upon his return he had been in "constant contact" with the military during his absence.
Many in the international community have avoided calling the military's actions a coup, instead urging Zimbabwe's authorities to respect the rule of law. Some Zimbabweans have congratulated the military, taking selfies with soldiers and cheering for army commander Constantino Chiwenga at Friday's inauguration.
Zimbabwean lawyer Alex Magaisa said the judge's rulings "may come to haunt Mnangagwa's government" by setting a precedent in "effectively legalizing military intervention in the affairs of government."
He also wrote Saturday that "it is interesting to note that the order was granted by 'consent' which suggests that Mugabe agreed to it. If he did, it could be that it was part of Mugabe's exit deal."
Mugabe has not been seen in public since his speech on Sunday defying calls to resign. He will remain in Zimbabwe, and Mnangagwa met him on Thursday and assured him of "maximum security," the state-run Zimbabwe Herald reported.
Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old former defense and justice minister, is blamed for a number of crackdowns under Mugabe, whom he continues to praise.
In his first speech as president, Mnangagwa spoke of reuniting the country and reaching out to the world after years of international condemnation over rights abuses and allegedly rigged elections. Let "bygones be bygones," he said. He has warned against "vengeful retribution."
The legality of the military takeover is also under scrutiny in new cases against several officials linked to the ruling party faction of Mugabe's wife.
Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo told a court that masked men in military uniforms burst into his home and pointed assault rifles at him and his wife as the military moved in.
Chombo said he was handcuffed and blindfolded in the early-morning Nov. 15 raid and driven to an unidentified location, where for days interrogators told him he had performed badly as a government official. He was then handed over to police for arrest.
The minister questioned the corruption allegations he now faces, saying some date back two decades. "I found it a little bit odd that it would come up now," he said.
Innocent Hamandishe, a member of the ruling ZANU-PF party's youth league who has been accused of "causing disaffection" in the security forces during the military's intervention, was "abducted" on Nov. 16 and only handed over to police on Wednesday, said his lawyer, Emmanuel Samudombe.
"It's a serious breach of the constitution," Samudombe said.
The lawyer for Kudzanai Chipanga, another youth league member, said he was removed from a police station by "armed people" on Nov. 15 and tortured before being arrested by police on Thursday.
"The military must know that there is a constitution in this country," Lovemore Madhuku said. "There's no such thing as a military arrest."Comment on this story
Whatever one might think of coups in principle, "one would have to concede that this one was artfully contrived and executed," showing a "smiling face" to the world to avoid regional sanctions, wrote Peter Fabricius, a consultant with the Institute for Security Studies.
Mugabe had the chance to protest to South African envoys who met with him shortly after the military stepped in, Fabricius added. "Mugabe could have screamed 'Help!'"
But he didn't, South Africa's defense minister later told local Radio 702: "Well, according to Mugabe, nothing; he's happy," she said.