Today's unlawful detention of a respected magazine editor and human rights lawyer for their criticism of the judiciary in Swaziland is another shocking example of the southern African kingdom's intolerance of freedom of expression, Amnesty International said.
Bhekithemba Makhubu, editor of Swaziland's monthly news magazine The Nation and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko are being held at Sidwashini Remand Prison in Mbabane, after highly irregular legal proceedings. They were arbitrarily arrested under defective warrants, denied access to their lawyers and remanded in custody after summary proceedings held behind closed doors.
"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. It violates international human rights standards and has no basis in Swaziland's domestic law," said Mary Rayner, researcher on Swaziland at Amnesty International.
"We consider Bhekithemba Makhubu and Thulani Maseko to be prisoners of conscience, arrested and detained merely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The Swaziland authorities must release them immediately and unconditionally."
The 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. They have both been charged with criminal contempt of court.
The warrant used to arrest them, issued by Swaziland's Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi, 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 Mary Rayner.
Bhekithemba Makhubu is still facing an onerous legal process, following his conviction 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.
Amnesty International had condemned the ruling which had been immediately followed by a shocking sentence of two year's imprisonment, if the editor failed to pay a fine equivalent to nearly US$45,000 within three days.
The sentence was averted when his lawyers managed to file appeal documents before that deadline. His appeal against his conviction and sentence has still not been heard.
Thulani 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.