Ilse de Lange
4 minute read
17 Jul 2015
10:42 am

Swazi human rights defenders unbowed by jail

Ilse de Lange

A Swazi human rights lawyer and a magazine editor who were jailed for criticising the judiciary yesterday thanked the human rights organisations which helped to free them.

Thulani Maseko Swazi human rights lawyer who were imprisoned for two years after being convicted of contempt of court at a welcoming reception for him and Swazi editor Bheki Makhubu on 16 July 2015 in Pretoria. Picture: Christine Vermooten

They however, warned that the fight for democracy in Swaziland was far from over. Speaking at a reception held in their honour at the Kutwalanong democracy centre in Pretoria, civil rights activist and lawyer Thulani Maseko and the editor of The National magazine Bheki Makhubu made it clear that even a stint in jail would not stop them from standing up for what was right.

The two were arrested in March 2014 and charged with contempt of court after articles they wrote that were critical of the now disgraced Swazi Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi appeared in The National Magazine, one of Swaziland’s few independent media outlets.

After they were sentenced to two years in prison without the option of a fine, Amnesty International termed them prisoners of conscience, describing the charges against them as nothing else but an attempt to curtail freedom of speech in Swaziland. They spent 15 months in jail before the Swazi Supreme Court overturned their convictions and sentences on June 30 and ordered their immediate release.

Throughout their trial, questions were raised about the fairness of the trial. The presiding judge Mpendulo Simelane has since been charged with corruption and defeating the ends of justice and Ramodibedi fired as chief justice, although charges of corruption were dropped against him.

Swazi editor Bheki Makhubu who were imprisoned for two years after being convicted of contempt of court speaks at a welcoming reception for him and Thulani Maseko Swazi human rights lawyer on 16 July 2015 in Pretoria. Picture: Christine Vermooten

Swazi editor Bheki Makhubu who were imprisoned for two years after being convicted of contempt of court speaks at a welcoming reception for him and Thulani Maseko Swazi human rights lawyer on 16 July 2015 in Pretoria. Picture: Christine Vermooten

The Crown did not oppose their appeal as the Swazi Directorate of Public Prosecutions believed their conviction was unsupportable and that Judge Simelane should have recused himself from their trial. Both described a deadly prison routine and enduring many daily humiliations aimed at breaking their spirit, but spoke about the inspiration of struggle heroes like the late President Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo which strengthened their resolve.

“When I was sitting in jail, I could feel he (Mandela) was with me because everything we went through he experienced… He spent 27 years in jail. Two years is nothing,” Maseko said. He said Mandela’s words that any man who tried to rob him of his dignity would not be successful kept him going even through 21 days in solitary confinement.

Maseko stressed that one did not need to forget the past, but to forgive the past. “It’s now being said that the rule of law crisis has been averted … but the crisis is not only in the judiciary. The crisis is in the government and in the constitution of Swaziland.

“We have not departed from the era where the matriarch demands supreme authority… Swaziland uses culture as a basis for oppression.

“…I’m asking you that you help us engage to find a way into the promised land of democracy,” he asked the prestigious group of human rights defenders and judges who attended the function.

Makhubu said he knew the judge who tried them had the full support of the Swazi government, despite blatant evidence that the process was manipulated and more about politics than anything else. He believed the Swazi judges had forgotten how important their function was and that they could change people’s lives forever.

“One of the biggest problems in Swaziland is that they give judgments without discernible reasons as if it is a mere administrative function.

“…The Judge who sent us to jail cried like a baby when he was arrested, yet he had no problem to send us to jail.

“…Ramodibedi is gone, but he did not do what he did in isolation … The political system in Swaziland is rotten. After the Africanisation of the bench people were taking decisions because it was politically correct,” he said.

Makhubu believed things turned out the way they did because the situation was shutting doors for Swaziland, but he believed the battle was far from over. “Perhaps the judiciary will now not take decisions to please others. As a society we need to keep them under constant pressure and remind them of the constitution.

“When the constitution came into operation in Swaziland in 2005, some commentators argued that the King can’t be told what to do by a piece of paper. Some of us stood on the other side and said it’s the law.

“I’ll continue to ask for constitutionalism, to which the judiciary is central … You don’t just get freedom on a silver platter,” Makhubu added.