The police say they will lay criminal charges against senior judicial officers involved in a controversial decision to release First Lady Maesaiah Thabane on bail last month.
This after Maesaiah had been charged with the 14 June 2017 murder of her predecessor as First Lady, Lipolelo Thabane.
While the police had already publicly expressed their disapproval of the bail decision, it emerged this week that they had actually quizzed several senior judicial officers with a view to pressing criminal charges against them.
Those interrogated thus far include assistant registrar of the High Court Advocate Tebello Mokhoema, senior resident magistrate Phethise Motanyane and some Lesotho Correctional Service (LCS) officers.
'Maesaiah was charged with the murder of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane's ex-wife, Lipolelo, on 5 February 2020. She was also charged with the attempted murder of Thato Sibolla, who was travelling in the same vehicle with Lipolelo, on that fateful night of 14 June 2017. Ms Sibolla sustained some injuries in the incident which occurred just two days before Dr Thabane's inauguration for his second stint as premier. Dr Thabane was supposed to have been charged with murder over the same incident. He was spared last week after he opted to ask the Constitutional Court to determine the legality of charging a sitting prime minister.
Shortly after being charged and remanded in custody by Maseru magistrate, Nthabiseng Moopisa, on 5 February 2020, Ms Thabane was hurriedly granted M1000 bail by Acting Chief Justice 'Maseforo Mahase.
It has since been alleged that the bail application was granted unprocedurally. The bail application was supposed to have been heard by Justice Keketso Moahloli who was the judge on call that week, and not Justice Mahase. But contrary to practice, Justice Mahase is said to have controversially decided to hear the case herself. She then granted the First Lady bail without even giving the State an opportunity to explain why it was opposing bail. The state had planned to oppose bail because it believed the First Lady was a flight risk as she had already skipped the country after being called in for questioning. Now that she had been formally charged, she would have reason to abscond permanently, the State had wanted to argue but were not given a chance on the same day the bail was granted.
The police were also angry that the bail application was allegedly granted at about 5.30 pm, a highly unprocedural development since the High Court's accounts department, which receipts bail cash, closes at 3.30pm daily. If this deadline is missed, suspects granted bail are required to stay in custody overnight until they have actually paid the bail money.
Adv Mokhoema now stands accused of personally accepting 'Maesaiah's M1000 bail fee from the latter's lawyers as it could not be deposited at the closed accounts office. She is said to have written a note to confirm receipt of the money. She then only paid the bail on behalf of the First Lady the next day when the accounts department re-opened.
The police insist this was highly unprocedural as bail had to be actually paid and receipted before criminal suspects are released. The police said they had resolved to charge Adv Mokhoema, alongside unnamed LCS officers, for flouting court procedures to facilitate the First Lady's release.
Deputy Police Commissioner (DCP) Paseka Mokete told the Lesotho Times yesterday they had since interrogated several judicial officers including senior magistrate Motanyane, Adv Mokhoema and some LCS officers to explain the procedure for releasing murder suspects on bail. He said they also wanted to find out who actually released 'Maesaiah from custody. Magistrate Motanyane is the one who read out 'Maesaiah's bail conditions after she had been granted bail by Justice Mahase. The conditions were that she should attend routine remand hearings every month, refrain from interfering with witnesses or police investigations and that she should stand trial to finality, in addition to posting the M1000 bail money.
For now, DCP Mokete said they had resolved to press charges against Adv Mokhoema and some LCS officers in connection with 'Maesaiah's "unprocedural release".
"We have always felt that the bail release was not properly done," DCP Mokete said.
"So, we interviewed magistrate Motanyane and the (magistrates') information officer ('Mampota Phakoe) to explain to us the bail procedures for murder suspects. We also interviewed LCS officers, staff from the High Court's accounts section and the assistant registrar of the High Court (Adv Mokhoema).
"We have preferred charges against the assistant registrar and some LCS officers. We are now waiting for directives from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (Adv Hlalefang Motinyane) as to how to proceed," added DCP Mokete, without naming the exact charges that had been preferred.
However, the judicial officers are not happy with the manner of the interrogation and the decision to charge them. They have already convened a meeting with Justice Mahase to protest what they see as harassment and abuse of authority by the police.
In that meeting last week, chief magistrate Matankiso Nthunya and Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) president, magistrate Peete Molapo, requested Justice Mahase to convene a meeting between them and the Commissioner of Police, Holomo Molibeli, to discuss their grievances.
"When magistrate Motanyane returned from the police interrogation, he told us that he had been informed that he would face charges in connection with the bail release," chief magistrate Nthunya said in an interview with the Lesotho Times yesterday.
"Magistrate Molapo and I were then tasked by fellow magistrates to notify Justice Mahase of these developments. We also asked Justice Mahase to request a meeting with Commissioner Molibeli to explain the procedure for interrogating or charging magistrates... ..
"The police have every right to interrogate anyone over anything including magistrates. However, we are querying the procedure they want to take in charging magistrate Motanyane.
"By right, if a judicial officer is suspected of misconduct, a complaint is filed with the Judicial Service Commission which in turn sets up a tribunal to hold an inquiry into the alleged misconduct," chief magistrate Nthunya said.
She said the tribunal will then, if the misconduct is upheld, recommend to the JSC to hold a disciplinary hearing with a view to sack the judicial officer or to advise the police to file criminal charges against the officer.
She said they were still waiting for Commissioner Molibeli to grant them the meeting they had requested to air their concerns over their alleged harassment by the police during the interrogations.
DCP Mokete denied allegations by some judicial officers that the police had snubbed their request for a meeting.
"We have not snubbed the request for the meeting. We are yet to meet her (Justice Mahase) to hear their concerns but in my opinion, the police can call anyone at any time whenever we think that a criminal act has been committed.
"They (judiciary) are disgruntled that we called some of them for interrogation but we were acting within the confines of the law. Section 26 (c) of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act 9 of 1981 clearly states that the police can call anyone, anytime," DCP Mokete said.
However, the magistrates' information officer, 'Mampota Phakoe, is unhappy with her treatment by the police. In an interview with this publication yesterday, she accused DCP Mokete and five other officers of harassing her during her interrogation.
"I have never felt so vulnerable or intimidated before. I was fetched from the Maseru magistrates' court by three police officers who said Ntate Mokete wanted to see me. They said he wanted me to explain the bail procedure for murder suspects.
"At one time Ntate Mokete, who did most of the questioning, told me that the police were not there to play. But I insisted that I would not say things I did not know. After the interrogation and the signing of a statement, I was then told we would meet in court and I still do not know when and for what purpose," Ms Phakoe said.
She said upon returning to her office, she immediately reported her ordeal to chief magistrate Nthunya who expressed shock at how she had been treated by the police.