Swaziland: Calls to Release Jailed Critics Grow

Photo: Nadia Neophytou
Protesting for Democracy and freedom of expression (file photo).

More organisations within Swaziland and internationally have joined the chorus of support for the two 'prisoners of conscience' who have been jailed on remand accused of contempt of court for criticising the judiciary in magazine articles.

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, editor of the Nation magazine, were sentenced to seven days in jail ahead of a court hearing scheduled for 25 March 2014.

They are accused of contempt of court for criticising judges, including the Swazi Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi, for the way they handled a court case involving Government Chief Vehicle Inspector Bhantshana Gwebu.

It was CJ Ramodibedi himself who jailed the two men, described by Amnesty International as 'prisoners of conscience'. No hearing was heard in open court and Maseko and Makhubu were denied proper legal representation.

The US Embassy in Swaziland said it had 'deep concern' about the arrest of the two men and added it strongly supported the democratic principles of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The Law Society of Swaziland said Makhubu and Maseko were irregularly arrested and detained on the instruction of the chief justice. It also criticised the summary manner in which the two were dealt with subsequent to their arrest.

In a statement it said, 'It is the view of the Law Society that every citizen of Swaziland is entitled to the due process of the law which entails the right to legal representation, equality before the law, right to appear in a open court before an impartial judicial officer, a right to a fair hearing, a right to administrative justice and a right to personal liberty, including the right to bail as provided in terms of the provisions enshrined in the Constitution of Swaziland and the founding principles of natural justice.'

Members of a number of progressive organisations attended court last week to support the two men, described by Ditshwanelo, The Botswana Centre for Human Rights, as 'two human rights defenders'. These included the Swaziland Association of Teachers (SNAT), the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO), the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO) and Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland (LHRS).

Meanwhile, the international organisation Reporters Without Borders (RWB) said, 'The arbitrary arrests of Maseko and Makhubu are the latest examples of the persecution that awaits anyone voicing the least criticism of Swaziland's institutions.'

Lucie Morillon, head of research and advocacy at RWB, said, 'In a country where the only voices tolerated are those of King Mswati and his government, how much leeway do journalists have to cover and comment on local news developments? None.'

Morillon added, 'The detention orders that the chief justice himself issued, without any respect for Swaziland's legal standards, are blatant violations of freedom of expression, motivated by a desire for personal revenge. We call on the authorities to free these two men at once.'

Freedom House also called for the immediate release of Makhubu and Maseko. It said, 'The Kingdom of Swaziland must uphold the basic rights and freedoms of its citizens and put an end to its sustained campaign to suppress its citizens' basic right to freedom of expression.'

It added, 'These arrests, indictments and imprisonment constitute a direct violation of the Swaziland constitution's section 21, which guarantees a fair trial and the section 24, the right to freedom of expression.'

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine said in a statement, 'These arrests make a mockery of Swaziland's constitution, which is supposed to uphold freedom of expression.'

The International Commission for Jurists (ICJ) said that both men 'appear to be detained for exercising their right of freedom of expression'.

Also calling for the release of the accused are the SADC Lawyers Association, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA).

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InFocus

Jailed Swazi Editor, Lawyer Await Trial

Protesting for Democracy and freedom of expression (file photo).

A top editor and a human rights lawyer remain in jail awaiting trial for contempt of court after they allegedly criticized the country's judiciary system in magazine articles. Read more »