A group of independent United Nations experts today voiced serious concerns at the arrest, detention and prosecution of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and the editor-in-chief of The Nation magazine, Bheki Makhubu, in Swaziland.
"We condemn the repeated arrests, detention and trial of Mr. Maseko and Mr. Makhubu and are concerned that these may be directly related to their legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression," the experts said in a news release, noting that the country's Constitution recognises the rights to freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial.
The men were arrested on 17 and 18 March 2014, respectively, on charges of criminal contempt of the court for publishing articles in The Nation magazine which questioned the circumstances and rationale of a case pending before the High Court of Swaziland.
They were detained after a summary proceeding in the Chief Justice's chambers and were remanded in prison for seven days without appearing before an open court, contrary to the provisions of Swaziland's Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act.
Mr. Maseko and Mr. Makhubu were released on 6 April, following a High Court judgment setting aside the initial warrant for their arrest as unconstitutional, unlawful and irregular. They were shortly re-arrested after the Chief Justice lodged an appeal to overturn that judgment. The two men have remained in detention in the capital, Mbabane, for the past two months.
The Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, noted that the detention and trial of the two men for their exercise of the right to express their opinion on a court case "runs contrary to Swaziland's international human rights obligations."
"Criminal sanctions, in particular imprisonment, for alleged libel or defamation are not proportional to the effective exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression," he said.
"At a time when the space for human rights defenders is visibly shrinking, we need to be very vigilant with respect to any case where imprisonment may be directly related to individuals' work in defence of human rights," added the new Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Michel Forst.
"The right to defend human rights includes the right freely to publish, impart or disseminate views and information on all human rights and fundamental freedoms both in law and in practice," Mr. Forst said.
Mads Andenas, who currently heads the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, appealed to the Government to "take all necessary measures to guarantee their right not to be deprived arbitrarily of their liberty and their right to fair proceedings before an independent and impartial tribunal."
The Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, voiced concern about allegations of lack of due process in the trials of the two men. She added that Mr. Maseko, as a lawyer, "has the right to take part in public discussions of matters concerning the law and the administration of justice."
Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.