Complaint laid against politicised judge – SAZF

Last year, Judge Desai made inappropriate claims when interviewed on Iranian YouTube channel

South African Zionist Federation lays complaint against politicised judge

10 June 2021 

The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) today lodged a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) against Judge Siraj Desai. His actions and conduct over many years are plainly in breach of the Code of Judicial Conduct and entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer. We recently became aware of the exact range and extent of Judge Desai’s misconduct. This includes his involvement in political controversy, misusing the prestige of his Judicial Office to advance his personal political interests, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he was obviously conflicted, and involving himself in activities that used the position of his Judicial Office to promote a partisan political cause. 

Last year, Judge Desai was interviewed on an Iranian YouTube channel, and made inappropriate comments likening Ayatollah Khomeini to President Nelson Mandela. 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. During the interview, Judge Desai also made several other shocking remarks regarding foreign policy, including referring to the United States, an important trade and diplomatic partner of South Africa, as the “Great Satan”.

Judge Desai has a long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby. This includes leading an anti-Israel tour to the Gaza Strip with BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) activists and participation in BDS activities and events. The BDS movement is notorious for its zealous anti-Zionism and for fostering enmity towards the South African Jewish community.

Despite his long-standing links to partisan advocacy organisations such as the BDS, in 2015 Judge Desai presided over a case brought by BDS activists. In 2018, Judge Desai welcomed and supported the Palestinian militant group Hamas during their trip to South Africa. This, 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. 

The SAZF does not bring this complaint to the Judicial Complaints Commission lightly and does not aim to curtail freedom of expression. The SAZF is on record in defending the rights of Judges to express their views within the ambit of the Judicial Code, especially when balanced fairly in the interests of justice. However, Judge Desai has long conducted himself well outside the realms of the Judicial Code. It is therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary, that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account.

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.  

The SAZF calls on the JCC to act vigorously in its investigation of Judge Desai relating to his inappropriate conduct. The integrity of the judiciary, the legal profession and the Rule of Law in South Africa is at stake. 

Issued by Rolene Marks, SAZF Legal Forum Spokesperson, 10 June 2021