Maseru — Four soldiers have been arrested in connection with the near fatal shooting of Lesotho Times editor Lloyd Mutungamiri in July last year in an operation the police say was authorized by the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).
Mr Mutungamiri was shot and critically wounded as he arrived at his Upper Thamae home from work in the late hours of 9 July 2016 in what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated assassination attempt.
His shooting followed a rough week for the Lesotho Times during which its staff were summoned for heavy-handed interrogation by police and military officials over reports the newspaper had published about the LDF.
Publisher and chief executive officer, Basildon Peta, was charged with criminal defamation arising from a complaint laid against the newspaper by then LDF commander Tlali Kamoli. A week later, Mr Mutungamiri nearly lost his life after one of the bullets shattered his lower jaw, requiring him to undergo specialized facial surgery, among other injuries.
The Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) said yesterday that its investigations had revealed that the attempted assassination of Mr Mutungamiri was an operation authorized by the army.
Police Commissioner ,Holomo Molibeli, said the four arrested soldiers were in detention and would appear in court this week to face attempted murder charges. The four are a colonel, a second lieutenant and two lance corporals. Neither their names nor confessions can be published until they have appeared in court.
Commissioner Molibeli said police investigations had confirmed their suspicions that the shooting had been master-minded by the army.
"When Lloyd was shot, we suspected that it was the LDF and our investigations have proved us right that it was the members of the LDF who plotted the crime. We now have the suspects in police custody... " Commissioner Molibeli told the Lesotho Times.
He said their original suspicions that the army could have organized the hit stemmed from the "squabble" between the Lesotho Times and the LDF over reports carried in this newspaper about the LDF. The army had expressed their stern unhappiness with the work of this newspaper, he said.
"The army's dissatisfaction arose from what was said by the Lesotho Times in one of its editions sometime last year after which the LDF complained that they were not satisfied with the way the publication handled their issues."
"It (the shooting) was thus an operation authorised by the LDF command... ..," said Commissioner Molibeli, adding that progress in investigating the shooting had been stalled because of a clique in the army and police that had been conniving to commit crimes and sweep them under the carpet.
"I sometimes feel sorry for the members of the LDF because most of them didn't like what was happening... ..Some of them were being asked to do things they really did not condone but it seems they just had to act against their consciences"
As the police intensify a crackdown on atrocities committed by soldiers but ignored under the previous regime of Pakalitha Mosisili, Commissioner Molibeli said it was now becoming very easy for LDF members to cooperate with the police and point them in the right directions. Their leads "never disappoint", he said.
He said nothing had been done to investigate the shooting of Mr Mutungamiri until his intervention to get things done. Commissioner Molibeli was appointed to head the LMPS after Prime Minister Thomas Thabane won the June 3 2017 elections. He then set out to probe numerous cases of rights abuses perpetrated under the previous regime but which had largely been ignored.
"There were really no investigations into the shooting until recently when I called Ntate Lloyd ... ... ... That is when we started the investigations," Commissioner Molibeli said.
He said that there were clear indications that police and army officers had been conniving to commit criminal acts and to cover them up. Police officers assigned to investigate atrocities committed by soldiers would simply sit on the files. That explained why no investigations had been done despite an international outcry over the brutal shooting of Mr Mutungamiri.
"This is why we cannot only arrest soldiers but also some of the police officers because there was a lot of conniving around criminality.
"They (police) condoned and formed part of a clique which committed crimes with impunity and I believe that we will still go after many suspects."
Commissioner Molibeli said while it was the rightful work of the police to prevent crimes like Mr Mutungamiri's shooting through intelligence sharing, the working environment under the previous regime had proven toxic and volatile to operate within, making it harder to follow on tip-offs and for state security agencies to cooperate on fighting crime.
"I was part of the management (of the police) but I really did not know what was going on because we had a situation where we were working in silos. There were some who would not give information to the others.
"That is why I had initially decided to go home because it was useless to be in the office where I was just like a parcel abandoned there. Some people in the army and the police force were planning all of these (bad) things and it was nasty," he said.
Mr Mutungamiri was shot shortly after he and former Lesotho Times reporter, Keiso Mohloboli, had been summoned to Mabote Police Station for interrogation by more than a dozen detectives and military officials over a story in which the Lesotho Times had reported about negotiations for an exit strategy for former army commander, Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli. Ms Mohloboli had been retrieved from a hair saloon.
Lt-Gen Kamoli was also miffed by a satirical parody in the Scrutator column about the former LDF commander's perceived influence in politics at that time. Scrutator had joked about a hypothetical "invasion" of a cabinet meeting by Lt-Gen Kamoli to prove his power by "ordering ministers to perform push-ups". But the former army commander failed to appreciate the spoof and instead instituted criminal defamation charges with him being cited as the main complainant.
Mr Peta is still in court over the criminal defamation charges, preferred against him in his capacity as publisher and chief executive officer of the company.
Lt-Gen Kamoli was forced to retire on 1 December 2016, in line with a recommendation by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) whose Mphapi Phumaphi commission of inquiry had recommended his ouster from the command of the LDF as part of a rafter of measures to achieve stability in Lesotho.
Africa Media Holdings (AMH), the publishers of the Lesotho Times, have commended Commissioner Molibeli and the LMPS for their sterling work in bringing the perpetrators of the dastardly act to book.
In a statement yesterday the company said: "We express our sincere thanks to Commissioner Molibeli and his entire team at the LMPS for their sterling work in bringing the culprits of this evil act to book. We hope the law will take its course and those behind the attempted killing of Mr Mutungamiri will face the full might of the law".
"Mr Mutungamiri's professional life and health were permanently damaged by people who believe in brutal violence to settle differences. Such characters should have no place in any civilized society."