MISA-Swaziland | Alert
April 11 2014
A prominent human rights lawyer in Swaziland, who is currently detained behind bars for writing an opinion piece questioning the independence of the country’s judiciary, dressed down a high court judge yesterday, telling the judge to stop treating him like a child.
“We have lawyers, why can’t you take the war to them? We are not children. You are a judge and you must behave like one. We are all getting tired of you. You have issued warrants so go ahead and arrest us,” said lawyer Thulani Maskeo from the court dock. Maseko is facing criminal contempt of court charges along with his fellow accused Bheki Makhubu, editor of respected monthly magazine The Nation.
The public gallery erupted into applause and cheers of support as Maskeo finished his impromptu address.
Maseko was directing his anger and instructions towards newly-appointed high court judge Mpendulo Simelane.
“Maseko told the judge off … after Judge Simelane reprimanded them for not standing up when their matter was called,” reported daily newspaper Times of Swaziland.
“Each time Judge Simelane addressed Maseko, members of the public sitting in the gallery would boo [the judge]”, reported daily newspaper the Swazi Observer.
Simelane said he wanted to address the accused men directly, which was why he was asking them to stand up.
Controversy has surrounded Simelane since his appointment as high court judge, and yesterday Lawyers for Human Rights in Swaziland — a support group for legal professionals — filed an application challenging the legality of Simelane’s appointment to the Bench.
Maseko and Makhubu were initially sent to prison on March 18 after a closed meeting in the chief justice’s chambers. In that meeting Maseko and Makhubu did not have an opportunity to defend themselves or apply for bail. Lawyers for the two detained men called the private meeting “peculiar”.
Local and international outcry followed, with Amnesty International calling the men “prisoners of conscience”. Many human rights groups have described the arrest and jailing as judicial retribution. African rights bodies, along with the US Embassy in Swaziland and the European Union, have condemned the actions of Swaziland’s judiciary.
Last Sunday, in a separate case brought by Maseko and Makhubu, high court judge Mumcy Dlamini found that the initial arrests of the men were unlawful and irregular, thereby releasing the men from jail. Hundreds of supporters sung and danced into the evening as the men were freed from Sidwashini jail, just north of the nation’s capital Mbabane.
The chief justice quickly appealed this ruling, saying judge Dlamini “erred” when making her judgement.
Earlier this week Maskeo and Makhubu were taken back into custody after judge Simelane issued two new arrest warrants. Simelane issued the warrants because the men were not in attendance at a bail-related hearing that had been set before the men were released from jail.
Lawyers for the accused argue that because the initial arrest warrants were found illegal, other matters — such as earlier bail-related matters — collapse.
Central to the ongoing saga are the question marks hanging over Swazi chief justice Michael Ramodibedi, who is currently suspended from a judicial position in his home country Lesotho, where he is facing allegations of fraud and misconduct. An impeachment trial against Ramodibedi is soon to begin in that country.
In Swaziland, questions have also been raised as to how judges Ramodibedi and Simelane can be impartial adjudicators when they are both subjects of the articles that have landed Maskeo and Makhubu in detention.
Confusion also surrounded yesterday’s hearing.
When judge Simelane set April 14 as the trial date, advocate Lucas Maziya — part of the legal team for Maseko and Makhubu — stood up to enquire: “What matter is this?”
Murmurs of agreement could be heard from the public gallery, as many observers were also confused.
“The main matter — contempt of court,” replied judge Simelane.
After Makhubu and Maseko were released from jail last Sunday the chief justice filed an appeal, which is set to be heard next month. Lawyers and observers at the court yesterday, therefore, were left wondering how a trial date could be set by judge Simelane when a pre-trial appeal — seemingly in the same matter — is yet to be heard.
In his closing remarks yesterday, judge Simelane told the court that it “seems the accused persons [Maskeo and Makhubu] have no respect for the authority and dignity of this court”. This also brought a wave of hushed noise from the public gallery, seemingly in protest at the judge’s comments.
As it stands, the contempt of court case will begin at Swaziland’s high court this coming Monday 14 April.
A pre-trial conference is being held today. Calls for free speech and media freedom continue to grow.
Read more in the local media, click on links below
Irate arrested Thulani attacks new judge — Swazi Observer
Thulani tells Mpendulo to behave like a judge — Times of Swaziland
For more context on the unfolding situation in Swaziland read opinion article by leading human rights activist Musa Hlohpe, published in the most recent edition of the Mail & Guardian. Click on link below