Journalist and human rights lawyer held in jail after closed court hearing

MISA-Swaziland | Alert
March 18 2014

A journalist and a human rights lawyer have been arrested and charged with contempt of court in Swaziland, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

Editor of The Nation magazine Bheki Makhubu
Editor of The Nation magazine Bheki Makhubu

Editor of the The Nation magazine Bheki Makhubu and prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko were both arrested and charged with contempt of court after writing articles in Makhubu’s monthly publication.

Makhubu was arrested this morning after local media reported police had yesterday raided his parental home as well as the home where he lives with his wife and children.

Makhubu, a respected journalist both inside Swaziland and abroad, was not at his parental or family home when the police came looking for him so they did not find him at either location.

The Swazi Observer, a daily newspaper effectively owned by King Mswati III, ruler of the country since 1986, quoted Makhubu in today’s paper: “I will be going to the police station [today] to hear what they wanted. Once again, I am not on the run,” said Makhubu.

“The storming of Makhubu’s residences came after reports that well-known human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko had been arrested in connection with an article he wrote for Makhubu’s publication,” reported the Swazi Observer.

Times of Swaziland front page, March 18 2014
Times of Swaziland front page, March 18 2014

The first offending article is an op-ed that appeared in the February edition of the The Nation and is written by Makhubu. According to the charge sheet:

“In that or during the month of February 2014 at or near Mbabane, in the Hhohho region, the said accused or all or them, acting jointly in furtherance of a common purpose did unlawfully and intentionally violate and undermine the dignity, repute and authority of the High Court of the Kingdom of Swaziland by issuing and publishing malicious and contemptuous statements about the King versus Bhantshana Vincent Gwebu, High Court Case No. 25/2014, a criminal matter currently pending before the High Court of Swaziland and therefore sub judice in the following manner — Compared the judicial officer who issued warrant against Bhantshana Gwebu to Caiphus who led Jesus to his killers. Alleged that the judicial officer collaborated with ‘willing servants’ to ‘break the law’. Alleged that the judicial officer ‘massaged’ the law ‘to suit his own agenda’. Falsely alleged that Bhantshana Gwebu was denied legal representation.”

The second offending article appears in the March edition of The Nation and is written by Maseko. It is an analytical opinion piece, in which he passionately questions and criticises the justice system and calls for the constitution to be upheld.

The article comments on the current case of government vehicle inspector Bhantshana Gwebu, who is also facing a contempt of court charge involving the chief justice.

In the article Maseko writes: “Swazis must be prepared to pay a price if we are to win our sense of dignity and self repect.”

Maseko is seemingly paying that price, for writing a piece of analytical and impassioned writing. The article alludes to Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country, a famous book about living in fear under South African apartheid. 

“Yes, the day will come; dawn and the light are coming to Swaziland. This will be the day when we, the people, will no longer be used as pawns, but a people with full citizenship rights to shape our destiny. So, yes, cry the beloved Kingdom of Eswatini!”

Front page of Thulani Maseko's article in The Nation magazine
Front page of Thulani Maseko’s article in The Nation magazine, with photo of chief justice Michael Ramodibedi

Local media reported that the police spokesperson, who is usually on top of things, didn’t know what was happening.

In a seemingly rushed fashion, the men were set to appear at the High Court this morning, however there was no case list at the court.

Family members and interested onlookers, nevertheless, were expecting to witness some version of an open court hearing.

Court officials and police officers at the court said that when the matter is “urgent” no case list is drawn up. In other words, no details of the hearing were immediately available at the court.

The chief justice of Swaziland Michael Ramodibedi, 69, who is a controversial figure both in Swaziland and his home country of Lesotho, is said to have issued the arrest warrant for Makhubu and Maseko.

Several commentators have suggested Ramodibedi, who has worked as a judge in Botswana and the Seychelles, is currently breaching the constitution by continuing to sit as Swaziland’s chief justice.

Entrance to Swaziland High Court
Entrance to Swaziland High Court

Section 157(1) of Swaziland’s Constitution, which came into effect on July 26 2005, says: “A person who is not a citizen of Swaziland shall not be appointed as Justice of a superior court after seven years from the commencement of this Constitution.”

It is now March 2014, more than seven years after the commencement of Swaziland’s Constitution. Does this, therefore, mean that Michael Ramodibedi, a citizen of Lesotho (and therefore a non-Swazi citizen) is now holding his Swazi post unconstitutionally?

According to Section 157(1) of Swaziland’s highest law, it would seem so.

It would also appear that Rambodibedi presided over the hearing this morning — in addition to allegedly issuing the warrant of arrest — raising doubts over how many positions he is playing in this case.

After waiting for several hours outside an empty court room, family members and supporters of Makhubu and Maskeo were told that a private hearing had just taken place in the chief justice’s chambers and both men had been taken from the building out a back door.

According to bystanders at the court, the accused journalist and human rights lawyer had been taken from the court back to Mbabane police station.

Makhubu and Maseko are now currently detained at Sidwashini jail, just north of the capital Mbabane, awaiting an open court hearing next Tuesday 25 March, according to their lawyer Mandla Mkhwanazi, a well-known human rights lawyer in Swaziland.

Lawyer Mandla Mkhwanazi addressing onlookers outside the High Court
Lawyer Mandla Mkhwanazi addressing onlookers outside the High Court

Mkwanazi held an impromptu press conference outside the High Court after the closed hearing, where he told journalists, fellow lawyers, civil society members, and family members of the accused that the procedures followed in the private hearing were “peculiar”.

He said there were about 10 people in the chambers, including several security guards.

Mkwanazi said there was no discussion of bail and therefore the accused had no opportunity to defend themselves in the “odd” pre-trail hearing.

He said Makhubu and Maseko suggested that they wanted the hearing in an open court, but instead they were physically shoved into the chief justice’s chambers by security guards.

Mandla Mkhwanazi outside Swazi High Court_2
Lawyer Mandla Mkhwanazi addressing onlookers outside the High Court

He said the guards were not carrying weapons. Mkhwanazi stopped short of calling the High Court a “kangaroo court” but many people listening to him shouted out the words.

The mood outside the court was one of disbelief and uncertainty, as no-one was quite sure what will happen to Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko.

Section 24 of the Swazi constitution guarantees free speech however many journalists work in daily fear and the chief justice is seemingly becoming more bullish in his issuing of warrants for comments made in the media that he doesn’t like.

Bheki Makhubu is currently facing a separate charge of contempt, which also involves the chief justice. This case is currently on appeal with no date set for a hearing.

The prime minster of the kingdom Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini, 72, who is not elected by the people but appointed by the monarch, is currently honeymooning with his new wife. He got married on Saturday in a lavish ceremony and left for his honeymoon on Sunday. The king, according to local media, gave him seven days off so he could holiday in the Seychelles and Dubai.

Front of cover of The Nation magazine, with articles that have seemingly landed a journalist and a human rights lawyer in jail. Prime Minister of Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini on the cover, who is currently in the Seychelles on his honeymoon
Front of cover of March edition of The Nation magazine. Prime Minister of Swaziland Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini on the cover, who is currently in the Seychelles on his honeymoon

Swaziland, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, has the highest HIV rate in the world and 70 percent of the one million population live in constant hunger. Bus fares are about to go up and a favourable trade agreement with the U.S. might come to an end on May 15, which would leave thousands more jobless. The trade agreement is tied to democratic reforms which Swaziland has not implemented.

The Swazi king has power over the judiciary, the legislature and the cabinet.

Many people are rightly afraid to directly question or openly criticise the king and the monarchy in public, even though the king himself has told people to speak their minds.

The BBC reported King Mswati is rated by Forbes magazine as the world’s 15th richest monarch with a personal fortune of $100m.



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