A freelance writer who defamed the former Zimbabwean ambassador could pay up to $200,000 for claiming the envoy stripped in front of embassy staff.
Jacqueline Zwambila’s legal team is expected to bankrupt Panganai Reason Wafawarova – who says defending himself has exhausted his finances – if he refuses to pay.
At a costs hearing in the ACT Supreme Court late last month, lawyers for Ms Zwambila submitted that Mr Wafawarova was liable for between $175,000 and $200,000 in damages plus costs.
Justice Hilary Penfold reserved her decision on the amount to be paid to the former envoy, who is currently seeking asylum in Australia.
Mr Wafawarova lost a last-gasp attempt to stop the action at the hearing on April 28.
Justice Penfold had struck out his defence in December after he repeatedly breached court orders, including by failing to provide documents relevant to the case. Mr Wafawarova was absent from court that day.
At the April hearing, the self-represented Sydneysider applied to have the lawsuit struck out and the matter adjourned.
He argued he could not get a fair hearing as key witnesses to his defence were Zimbabwean diplomats, formerly based in Australia, who had since been redeployed.
Diplomatic conventions meant envoys cannot be forced to give evidence in a court. Mr Wafawarova said his request to the Zimbabwean foreign affairs ministry for those officials to attend court had been refused.
The defendant also argued the court had no jurisdiction over the matter as the claims were published in Zimbabwe and the allegations against Ms Zwambila had occurred during work hours at a diplomatic residence.
He also sought an adjournment so he had time to work on his defence.
Ms Zwambila’s barrister, Stuart Littlemore, QC, opposed the applications, arguing Mr Wafawarova had repeatedly flouted court orders.
Justice Penfold refused both of Mr Wafawarova’s applications and heard submissions on the amount of costs to be paid.
Ms Zwambila, from the witness stand, said she had been mortified by the article, which now followed her everywhere. She claimed her name had been stigmatised, she felt like she wanted the earth to swallow her, and dignity had been taken from her country.
Mr Littlemore submitted Mr Wafawarova should pay $175,000 to $200,000 in damages. If the money was not paid, Ms Zwambila’s Canberra-based lawyers, Aulich Civil Law, could move to bankrupt Mr Wafawarova.
Courts papers filed by the defendant said he had exhausted his finances paying legal fees and was forced to represent himself as a result.
Ms Zwambila launched legal action against News Limited and Wafawarova in 2011, after Zimbabwean state-run newspaper The Herald published claims in November 2010 that the ambassador had disrobed in front of three staff during a heated argument.
Some regard stripping as a traditional protest to shame an opponent.
The allegation could be seen to suggest that Ms Zwambila was uncivilised and not fit to represent her country abroad.
Ms Zwambila was a political activist with Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and was appointed ambassador under a power-sharing deal with Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
She claimed the article had been fabricated in order to undermine her position.
News Limited also published Wafawarova’s claims in The Australian about the then newly appointed envoy.
News Limited agreed to a confidential settlement – understood to be worth tens-of-thousands of dollars – in March 2011.
But Mr Wafawarova fought the lawsuit, arguing the allegations were true, an opinion, fair comment and in the public interest.
He also argued he had not authored the story, claiming he only provided the tip-off to the newspaper and a Harare-based journalist, Tendai Mugabe, penned the defamatory article.
Mr Wafawarova said he did not know why he had been given a byline on the story.
Mr Wafawarova continues to refuse to apologise or issue a correction on his personal website.
An online version of the story is still carried on The Herald’s webpage.
Mr Wafawarova claims he cannot force the newspaper, which has close ties with the Mugabe regime, to withdraw the report.
The decision on the amount to be paid is expected to be handed down in late this year.