Maseru — EIGHT soldiers appeared in court yesterday over the June 2015 killing of former army commander, Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, in a major breakthrough over a case that plunged the Lesotho into crisis and prompted a spirited regional intervention effort.
Lt-Gen Mahao was ambushed and shot by his peers from the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) near his farm in Mokema on 25 June 2015.
His widely condemned killing kick-started a chain of events that resulted in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) establishing a commission of inquiry to probe the murder and the instability in Lesotho.
The LDF claimed that Lt-Gen Mahao had been shot while resisting arrest over an alleged mutiny plot. However, the army's version was dismissed as a hoax by both the soldier's family and the SADC commission of inquiry headed by retired judge Mphaphi Phumaphi. Lt-Gen Mahao's family accused the army of killing him in cold blood, based on the account s of his nephews who were with him during the incident.
Justice Phumaphi's 10-member commission carried out its investigations between 31 August and 23 October 2015 and recommended, among other things, that government should investigate the killing and prosecute those found to be responsible.
However, the former coalition of Pakalitha Mosisili did nothing to probe the murder and other atrocities perpetrated by the LDF during its reign.
Even after Dr Mosisili announced in June 2016 that an investigation into the killing was underway, nothing tangible emerged prompting the Mahao family to accuse the former coalition of deliberately stalling the probe.
After Dr Mosisili's ouster and replacement by Thomas Thabane in the wake of the 3 June 2017 snap elections, the new coalition government vowed to leave no stone unturned in investigating and prosecuting those behind egregious crimes like Lt-Gen Mahao's killing as well as the attempted murder of Lesotho Times editor Lloyd Mutungamiri, among other atrocities.
In an interview with the Lesotho Times last night, Police Commissioner, Holomo Molibeli, said the police had finally made a breakthrough and all the eight suspects arrested this week had appeared in the Maseru Magistrates Court on murder charges.
Commissioner Molibeli said it was likely that more suspects would be arrested and charged as police investigations continue.
"We have suspects who have appeared in court on Wednesday (yesterday). The possibility of making other arrests is high. We are expecting some soldiers who are already in custody on other charges to also answer to charges of Lt- Gen Mahao's killing," Commissioner Molibeli said.
The suspects who have so far appeared at the Maseru Magistrates Court were only identified by their ranks and surnames. They are Captain Makara, Captain Nyakane, Sergeant Moepi, Sergeant Fako, Corporal 'Moleli, Corporal Seitlheko, Lance Corporal Ramoholi and Lance Corporal Machai.
They were all remanded in custody and advised to apply to the High Court for bail.
Commissioner Molibeli said investigations had revealed the eight were part of an operation that resulted in the death of Lt-Gen Mahao.
He said the breakthrough was achieved after months of resistance and lack of cooperation from the LDF.
"Police had before experienced some resistance to the extent that even SADC experts, sent to assist in the investigations, were not allowed access to the vehicles used in the deadly operation.
"I believe this case could have been investigated and finalised in court if there was political will at the time when he (Lt-Gen Mahao) was killed," Commissioner Molibeli said.
He further explained that Lt- Gen Mahao's belongings, which the LDF had refused to release for some very "strange reasons", would finally be handed over to his family.
"His belongings were brought to us by the LDF personnel but we could not accept them in the absence of the family. We will finalise arrangements with the Mahao family for a proper handover.
"As the police, we could not understand the logic in refusing to hand over personal belongings because those items had nothing to do with investigations. It is strange that now it has become very easy for the LDF to hand them over yet they had been refusing before," Commissioner Molibeli said.