18 February 2013

Swaziland: Raid on Prayers Unconstitutional

Armed police broke up a prayer meeting at a cathedral in Swaziland without a court order or a warrant.

And, they contravened the Swazi Constitution in doing so.

About 60 police officers broke up the prayers at the Our Lady of Assumption cathedral in Manzini on Saturday (16 February 2013). Police spokesperson Inspector Khulani Mamba said they were acting on information that the prayers were a meeting to plan to disturb forthcoming national elections.

"When we see a crime happening, we don't need a court order," Mamba told local media.

The prayer meeting was organised by the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) and the Swaziland Democracy Campaign (SDC).

Human rights lawyer Mandla Mkhwanazi said the police action violated the kingdom's constitution which guaranteed freedom of religion.

Police regularly break up meetings in Swaziland without court orders or warrants and have in effect became arbiters of who can and cannot meet.

In 2011, a reported 250 police forced a prayer meeting at the Lutheran Church to be cancelled. Police at the time said they banned the prayer 'using their own discretion' under the Public Order Act of 1963.

In August 2011, armed police invaded the Swazi High Court to break up a meeting of lawyers who gathered to discuss their on-going campaign to get Michael Ramodibedi, the Swaziland Chief Justice removed from office.

Police routinely break up peaceful demonstrations organised by progressive movements, such as the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) and the African United Democratic Party (AUDP).

In April 2011 armed police blocked off the city of Manzini to stop people entering to take part in a prodemocracy protest. Police also picked up people and drove them into the countryside where they were abandoned to make their own way home. This was to prevent them taking part in political action.

In May 2010 the Swaziland Prime minister Barnabas Dlamini, who was not elected to office, but personally-appointed by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, made it clear that he was in charge of the kingdom's police force and would use it against democracy activists.

Dlamini, who has an international reputation as an enemy of freedom and democracy, was explaining why dozens of police invaded the funeral of democracy activist Sipho Jele.

Officers tore up pictures of the deceased man and confiscated banners belonging to opposition group, the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).

Dlamini said police would break up gatherings and make arrests even if no crime had been committed. The police just needed to believe that a crime might be committed.

Dlamini told the meeting that police suspected crimes would be committed at Jele's funeral so they broke it up.

Dlamini's remarks at a gathering of the kingdom's senior media people contradicted comments by Swaziland Commissioner of Police Isaac Magagula that the police were a service to the people of Swaziland and would treat people as 'clients' and with respect.

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