Lesotho Defence Force's (LDF) Major Pitso Ramoepana has been given temporary relief after the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) dropped charges against him in a case in which he is accused of murdering former army commander, Lieutenant General Khoantle Motṧomotṧo.
This after South African Advocate Shaun Abrahams, the chief prosecutor in the murder case, advised the DPP, Hlalefang Motinyane, to drop the charges and request the AG's office to instead institute an inquest into the murder.
He said the reason for dropping the charges was the absence of compelling evidence to link Major Ramoepana to Lt-Gen Motṧomotṧo's murder.
The murder charges may nonetheless be reinstated after the inquest, depending on its outcome, with the possibility of the charging of more people for acting in common purpose with the late Lieutenant Colonel Tefo Hashatsi as well as Colonel Bulane Sechele in the 5 September 2017 killing of Lt-Gen Motṧomotṧo. Lt-Col Hashatsi and Col Sechele also died during the shootout at the former army boss's offices at Ratjomose barracks.
However, Major Ramoepana's lawyer, Advocate Karabo Mohau King's Counsel (KC), objected to the temporary withdrawal of the charges, insisting that his client should be allowed to plead and get the charges dropped completely.
Justice Onkemetse Tshosa will on December 4 2019 rule on whether he allows the state to withdraw the murder charges in favour of the inquest or order Major Ramoepana's full acquittal.
Major Ramoepana's trial had been billed to start on Monday but failed after Adv Abrahams informed the court of the decision to drop the charges.
Adv Abrahams told the court he had advised the DPP to withdraw charges to pave way for the inquest. He said the DPP had powers to drop charges in line with Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act.
"The prosecution has identified 37 witnesses and the last one was consulted on Friday (23 November 2019) after which I discovered that there was inadequate evidence to suggest that Mr Ramoepana acted in common purpose with Mr Hashatsi and Mr Sechele regarding the murder of Lt-Gen Motṧomotṧo.
"I subsequently advised the DPP to decline prosecuting Mr Ramoepana in connection with the murder... Therefore, the crown has withdrawn murder charges against Mr Ramoepana," Advocate Abrahams said.
He said sub-section 278(3) of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, empowered the DPP to withdraw any charge at any time before the accused has pleaded. She further has powers to request the Attorney General to pursue an inquest.
"I further recommended that due to the nature of the particular offence and interests of justice in connection with the death of Lt-Gen Motṧomotṧo, the attorney general be requested to write to the Chief Justice to appoint a judge to preside over the inquest," said Advocate Abrahams.
When the proceedings resumed yesterday, Adv Mohau KC argued that it had been grossly unfair for his client to be kept in custody for over two years only for the charges to be dropped when trial is due to start. Moreso because it was also possible for the charges to resurface later after the inquest. His client hence wanted the court to completely erase the murder charges.
"The basis of the withdrawal is not clear to my client because he does not understand why the crown had to wait two years and two months after his detention to drop the charges. A person cannot await trial for over two years and only be told when it is supposed to start that charges are being withdrawn.
"Pursuing an inquest simply means charges may be reinstated against the accused later on. Leaving charges hanging around his neck is only going to prolong the trauma of not knowing whether the charges will be reinstated.
"Section 12 of the constitution states that accused persons should be treated fairly. He is a human being and should be treated like one. This unhappy matter should be brought to a close by asking the accused to plead and then acquit him of the charges," Adv Mohau said.
He said his client had incurred large amounts of money in legal fees to fight the charges that were now being dropped.
However, Adv Abrahams argued that Major Ramoepana was not wrongfully detained as he had also been in custody in connection with two other grave matters.
Besides the Lt-Gen Motṧomotṧo murder, Major Ramoepana is also accused, alongside nine other soldiers, of allegedly strangling Lekhoele Noko, Molise Pakela and Khothatso Makibinyane at Setibing in rural Maseru on 16 May 2017 and dumping their bodies in the Mohale Dam.
He is also facing attempted murder charges regarding the 27 January 2014 simultaneous bombings of the Moshoeshoe II homes of First Lady Maesaiah Thabane and her then neighbour 'Mamoshoeshoe Moletsane as well as the Ha-Abia residence of former police commissioner, Khothatso Tšooana.
When he initially appeared in court on Monday, a sickly Major Ramoepana trudged into the courtroom showing signs of serious pain with a bottle of water in hand. During the proceedings, he sat leaning into a desk in front of him. Similarly, on Wednesday he kept changing sitting positions regularly, often closing his eyes for long periods.
Major Ramoepana was admitted at Queen 'Mamohato Memorial Hospital on 1 November 2019 and discharged two days later.
When he appeared in court on 4 November 2019 on charges of murdering the three Maseru civilians in May 2017, one of his lawyers, Advocate Kabelo Letuka, accused LCS officers of whisking his client back to prison before he had been formally discharged from the hospital. Justice Kabelo Lebotse, before whom Major Ramoepana appeared that day, ordered that the ailing soldier be taken back to the hospital to complete treatment.