Swaziland must release lawyer and editor
Outcry over latest violation of freedom of expression
Swaziland’s Chief Justice, Michael Ramodibedi, is under fire again – from all sides. And rightly so.
Once again, he has contravened the normal legal process, further undermining what remains of the rule of law in the country and violating people’s basic human rights.
The Chief Justice’s latest victims are Bhekithemba Makhubu, the respected editor of Swaziland’s monthly news magazine The Nation and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, who were arbitrarily arrested earlier this week under defective warrants, denied access to their lawyers and remanded in custody after summary proceedings held behind closed doors.
Already, his actions have been condemned far and wide with Amnesty, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), SADC Lawyers Association (SADC LA) and Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) adding their voices to the growing chorus of criticism.
“These arbitrary arrests and highly irregular legal proceedings amount to judicial retribution rather than justice being delivered, and are further evidence of Swaziland’s intolerance of freedom of expression,” said Mary Rayner, researcher on Swaziland at Amnesty International. “It violates international human rights standards and has no basis in Swaziland’s domestic law.”
“The arrests and detentions of Maseko and Makhubu are to be condemned not only for their flagrant disregard of due process rights but also because they evince an ongoing and systematic campaign to deny Swazis their rights to freedom of expression, and to target those who dare oppose the authorities,” said a joint statement from the ICJ, SADC LA and SALC.
The two men were detained after The Nation published two articles by Thulani Maseko in February and March this year, in which he raised concerns about judicial independence and integrity in Swaziland following the arrest of the government's chief vehicle inspector. They have both been charged with scandalising the judiciary and contempt of court.
The warrant used to arrest them, issued by Chief Justice Ramodibedi – who is currently resisting impeachment proceedings, relating to allegations of abuse of office, in his native Lesotho – apparently subverted the normal legal process.
The police at Mbabane police station, where the men were initially detained prior to their appearance before the Chief Justice, also appear to have been acting under instructions when they denied their lawyers access.
Normal criminal procedure dictates the men should have then appeared before a magistrate. Instead, they were taken to the Chief Justice’s chambers for what turned out to be summary proceedings. Their lawyers were not permitted to make any submissions and the Chief Justice went on to remand them in custody without the opportunity to apply for bail.
“It’s clear that the Chief Justice has a prevailing conflict of interest in this case, and the Swaziland authorities have no grounds on which to hold these men, other than apparent vindictiveness by a powerful public official,” said Rayner. “The Swaziland authorities must release them immediately and unconditionally.”
The ICJ, SADCLA and SALC also called on the Swazi authorities to ensure that Maseko and Makhubu are able to apply for bail without delay, that they are accorded their full due process rights, and that the authorities desist in their ongoing persecution of those who raise critical voices.
And both Makhubu and Maseko have been targeted before. Makhubu is still facing an onerous legal process as he is appealing his conviction – and oppressively harsh sentence – last year in Swaziland’s High Court on two counts of criminal contempt of court in connection with the publication of two articles questioning the independence of the country’s judiciary.
Meanwhile, Maseko, an activist with Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, has also faced repressive charges under Swaziland’s Sedition and Subversive Activities Act brought against him 2009, for which he has never been brought to trial.
But this is Swaziland. And there is no reason to believe that all this local, regional and international criticism will have an impact. King Mswati III is already – constitutionally – above the law and the Chief Justice is increasingly acting as though he is too.