Zionist Federation lodges complaint against Siraj Desai, accusing him of being a 'politicised' judge

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Judge Siraj Desai.
Judge Siraj Desai.
Jaco Marais
  • The South African Zionist Federation has lodged a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Committee against Judge Siraj Desai.
  • Accusing him of actions and conduct "entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer", it questioned his appointment as Legal Services Ombudsman.
  • Desai, through a spokesperson, accused the federation of "employing hasbara tactics in its retaliatory and vindictive attacks" on him.

A "politicised" judge - this is how the South African Zionist Federation has described the retired Siraj Desai, against whom it has lodged a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Committee, accusing him of conducting himself "well outside the realms of the Judicial Code".

The organisation accused Desai, who has since been appointed the Legal Services Ombud, of actions and conduct "entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer", charging that he had over many years "plainly breached" the Code of Judicial Conduct.

It charges that Desai had been involved in political controversy, misused the "prestige of his Judicial Office to advance his personal political interests", failed to recuse himself in a case in which he was "obviously conflicted", and involved himself in activities that "used the position of his Judicial Office to promote a partisan political cause".

"It is therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary, that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account," the SAZF said on Thursday.

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"This is especially so in the case of Judge Desai, who is now the Legal Services Ombudsman, and thus heads the institution whose role is to safeguard the integrity of the legal profession in South Africa. It is difficult to understand how a judge who has consistently contravened the code can be expected to retain the confidence of the general public, let alone the legal profession."

But Desai, through his spokesperson, Professor Usuf Chikte, said he was unapologetic in his stance in "condemnation of apartheid Israel and in defence of Palestinians that are persecuted by the unjust laws and war crimes conducted against them, crimes against humanity that apartheid Israel is prosecuting, for which they deserve a place in the dock in the ICC".

He accused the federation of "employing hasbara tactics in its retaliatory and vindictive attacks on Judge Desai in an attempt to gain ground in the growing media war to curtail the growing media losses they are suffering in a narrative unfolding in relation to the persecution and liquidation of Palestinians".

According to the SAZF's official complaint, filed on Thursday, Desai made "inappropriate comments" in an interview on an Iranian YouTube channel in which he likened Iranian political and religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini to President Nelson Mandela, describing both as "towering figures".

Desai, in the interview, said what made Ayatollah and Mandela important was that the former president "asserted an independent foreign policy and did not allow the United States to dictate the foreign policy of this country.

"Equally, the Ayatollah mentioned rather picturesquely, but more bluntly, the idea that America was the great Satan. It incorporated the idea of the forces aligned against the real transformation of people throughout the world. We salute both the leaders for that position that they had taken in the international arena," Desai said, adding:

Secondly, an important aspect of both leaders: they called for unity, President Mandela called for unity amongst the oppressed against the forces of darkness in this country. He called for unity in the face of oppression. And when he assumed power, perhaps debatably so, he called for unity of all South Africans in rebuilding this country.

He continued: "Perhaps he overestimated the goodwill that existed amongst our former oppressors, but he echoed the call throughout in the most desperate and dark times for unity in rebuilding this country."

According to the SAZF, Desai's comments were "inappropriate".

"To compare a world-renowned peacemaker like President Mandela to the despotic founding leader of a regime notorious for its disregard of human rights and which is responsible for gross human rights violations, including torture and violence against thousands of people, is an insult to the people of South Africa, the Constitution, and our democratic institutions," it said.

WATCH | People take to the streets across SA in solidarity with Palestine

It described the reference to the US as the "great Satan" as "shocking remarks", as the country was an important trade and diplomatic partner of South Africa.

The federation said Desai had a "long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby", including leading an "anti-Israel tour to the Gaza Strip" in December 2009 with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists and participation in the movements' activities and events.

Fostering

"The BDS movement is notorious for its zealous anti-Zionism and for fostering enmity towards the South African Jewish community," the SAZF argued.

In 2015, Desai set aside the terms of an administrative order by the City of Cape Town limiting the crowd at a proposed public protest from 150 people to 16 000.

The applicants included Boycott Woolworths Western Cape Volunteers, which formed part of a BDS campaign over its trade relations with Israel. The protests were against the presence of US star Pharrell Williams who was to perform at GrandWest Casino complex "at the request of Woolworths".

The City was ordered to pay costs.

READ | Jacob Zuma pleads not guilty, wants Billy Downer removed from case 

According to the complaint, there was no record in the judgment of Desai "having disclosed his interest in BDS to the parties in that case".

It also accused Desai of welcoming and supporting Hamas during their trip to South Africa in 2018, when he met with a delegation at the offices of the Muslim Judicial Council where he "again assumed the role of a pro-Palestinian activist".

This, after he said: "We hope to make an intellectual contribution to the resolution of the Palestinian issue, but we take our leadership from you. You are the leadership on the ground."

The SAZF said this was "despite the fact that the Hamas Charter includes direct calls for violence against Jewish people and the destruction of the State of Israel".

"Using the prestige of the Judicial Office to publicly promote an extremist organisation is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the Judicial Code of Conduct."

Chikte said Desai had not yet been served with the complaint, but had seen it via the media.

"It is nevertheless a matter of twisted irony that the SAZF, notorious for its collaboration with apartheid South Africa, should embark on a retaliatory action against Judge Desai whose conduct as a judge is unimpeachable on account of progressives and human rights activists," Chikte said.

"His distinguished life-long record in the dispensation of justice nationally and in defence of human rights internationally deserves to be gilded on a Roll of Honour.

Derive

"This is diametrically opposed to that of the SAZF, who act as apologists for racial supremacist conduct in Israel and who derive their inspiration from the Israeli judicial system through their apartheid military and civilian courts where judgments on ethnic cleansing, racial injustice and violation of human rights is dressed up judicial robes."

Chikte argued there was "no controversy in speaking to human rights" and that Desai made no apology for his support of Palestinians.

"His views are in line with what the president, minister Naledi Pandor and Dirco has said," he maintained.

"In issuing his judgments, he articulated his view in line with the Constitution. He was the defender of the right to assembly, expression and to protest peacefully.

"It is not partisan to defend human rights, to dispense justice, to speak out against ethnic cleaning, the removal of people, the expulsion and extermination of Palestinians. In fact, it is one's duty to speak out to such tyranny and to support and defend Palestinians against injustice and crimes against humanity."

Judicial Service Commission spokesperson Doris Tshepe confirmed that the JSC received the complaint on Thursday.

"The complaint will be placed before the chairperson of the Judicial Conduct Committee for consideration as required by the Judicial Service Commission Act."

Chitke said Desai looked forward to "dispelling the hasbara falsifications by the SAZF if and when the documents are received".

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