BOTSWANA Judge Kabelo Lebotse, who was recruited to preside over high-profile criminal cases, resigned over what he and fellow foreign judges consider to be poor working conditions.
The judges had complained of inadequate remuneration, lack of medical aid cover and "non-provision of essential tools of trade", authoritative judicial sources told the Lesotho Times this week.
In fact, the two other foreign judges, Justices Onkemetse Tshosa (also from Botswana) and Charles Hungwe (Zimbabwe), had also informed the JSC of their intention to quit on 31 July 2020 over poor working conditions. Their planned departure was only averted after their salaries were doubled only a fortnight ago.
Law and Justice Minister Professor Nqosa Mahao this week officially confirmed Justice Lebotse's resignation, saying he had been informed that he quit due to "disagreements over what was due" to foreign judges.
All this contradicts recent claims by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Advocate Hlalefang Motinyane, that Justice Lebotse had resigned over the "frustrating" conduct of some of the criminal suspects he is supposed to try, who have been causing frequent postponements of their trials.
DPP Motinyane made the allegations in her court papers filed a fortnight ago in the High Court, in opposition to the bid by top politician - Mothetjoa Metsing and Selibe Mochoboroane - to forestall the start of their treason trial.
Adv Motinyane alleged that Justice Lebotse was fed up by the conduct of suspects who often employed delaying tactics to stop the state from proceeding with criminal trials.
Messrs Metsing and Selibe Mochoboroane wanted their treason trial put on hold until the completion of the multi-sector reforms process in line with an earlier agreement with the then government of former premier Thomas Thabane.
But Adv Motinyane insisted the trial should proceed, citing Justice Lebotse's resignation as a reason why it should not be business as usual for criminal suspects in terms of delaying their trials.
She argued that the judge's resignation would further hamper the delivery of justice in the high-profile trials of mainly politicians and soldiers accused of perpetrating atrocities during the previous coalition of ex-premier Pakalitha Mosisili.
"The fact that the criminal trials to which the applicants (Messrs Metsing and Mochoboroane) resist to be joined have been postponed for one reason or the other is so serious to an extent that one of judges is resigning out of frustrating conduct of delaying tactics," Adv Motanyane stated in her court papers.
However, the Lesotho Times has established that Justice Lebotse actually resigned out of frustration with the JSC's failure to increase the remuneration of foreign judges since they were recruited at the beginning of 2019 to try some of the cases of the high-profile suspects.
It is not clear why Lesotho has not looked after the foreign judges particularly well as international donors including the European Union (EU) have availed aid to pay their packages.
The sources would not reveal how much the judges were earning, saying this was highly confidential information.
"From the word go, Justice Lebotse and fellow foreign judges were not happy with the emoluments they were offered. They only started work last year after receiving assurances that their grievances would be addressed during the course of their employment in Lesotho," a source said.
"Other grievances centred around the issues of lack of medical aid cover and the failure to reimburse them for transport expenses after they paid for fuel costs from their own pockets.
"Due to the failure to address their grievances all three judges wrote to the JSC, informing it of their intention to quit on 31 July 2020. Justice Lebotse then decided to quit with effect from 5 June 2020 due to what he said were special personal circumstances," the source added.
The source said Justice Lebotse decided to bring forward his resignation after he fell sick with an undisclosed ailment and spent three days in hospital in Botswana in February 2020.
The judge was allegedly frustrated by the JSC's failure to timeously ensure he was paid his January 2020 salary to enable him to take care of his medical expenses. The source said Justice Lebotse was also angered by the government's request that he covers his own transport costs to Botswana on the promise that he would eventually be reimbursed.
Another source said the judge was still owed his May 2020 salary and M10 000 in fuel expenses.
The sources said after Justice Lebotse's resignation and, faced with the prospect of also losing Justices Tshosa and Hungwe, a panicky JSC finally agreed to increase the judges' salaries a fortnight ago.
"The foreign judges complained that their initial salaries were so low that even clerical staff in their own countries were better paid. The JSC eventually approved the doubling of their salaries. The increments were effected to stop the others from following Justice Lebotse through the exit door. But they are with effect from May 2020 and not backdated to the time the judges began working in Lesotho last year. Even as we speak, Justice Lebotse has not been paid his May 2020 salary and he is still owed M10 000 for fuel," the source said.
Another source said with Justice Lebotse's departure, the government had paid the price for failing to address the foreign judges' grievances raised in several letters.
The source said apart from salaries, transport allowances and medical cover, the judges also complained about lack of equipment to enable them to perform their job well.
"They (judges) often complained of faulty equipment. From the very beginning, Justice Lebotse complained of a faulty computer which never worked even after it was taken for repairs. He was not even given a charger for the computer.
"He (Justice Lebotse) also complained about the JSC's failure to provide him with the appropriate court attire. When the judges arrived, they were told they would use the attire that had been left behind by the retired judges but due to his huge physical stature, Justice Lebotse did not have a proper size. He said he found it hard to enforce court decorum when he was not appropriately dressed himself.
"It is however, a good thing that the JSC has finally given the judges an increment just a month shy of their 31 July 2020 ultimatum to quit. However, Justice Lebotse is yet to be paid his dues for May 2020 as well as refunds for fuel costs. It remains to be seen how the judges will react to the fact that the increments are with effect from May 2020 and not from the beginning of their tenure as they had demanded," the source said.
Among others, Justice Lebotse was assigned the case of former Defence and National Security Minister Tšeliso Mokhosi and others who are accused of the March 2016 murder of Police Constable Mokalekale Khetheng.
He was also assigned to try former army commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli's bodyguards over the May 2014 murder of Lisebo Tang as well as that of 10 soldiers who are accused of murdering three civilians in Maseru on 16 May 2017.
His resignation is a clear setback for ensuring the delivery of justice. Many suspects, particularly the soldiers, have routinely sought delays of their trials in the hope that a change of government would enable them to escape justice. However, it is unlikely that the new Moeketsi Majoro government would grant them any such leeway as the All Basotho Convention (ABC) was on the receiving end of their atrocities.
Prof Mahao, the Law and Justice minister, this week confirmed the departure of Justice Lebotse, saying he was informed that he resigned due to "disagreements over what was due" to foreign judges.
"An agreement has been reached by both parties that he (Justice Lebotse) will come back to wrap up the case that he was handling which is almost concluded. He will then leave after delivering judgement," Prof Mahao said.
He said that he would soon have separate meetings with the foreign judges and Acting Chief Justice 'Maseforo Mahase to establish the circumstances surrounding the judges' working conditions.
"I am told that their grievances have been addressed but I personally want to establish first hand that they have indeed been addressed," he said.
He said that Justice Lebotse and his foreign colleagues were engaged to deal with the high-profile cases under a special funding arrangement with the international donors.
Prof Mahao said the funding arrangement ends in February 2021 and there was therefore an urgent need to ensure the foreign judges would have finalised all their cases by then.
The public relations officer of the judiciary, 'Mabohlokoa Mapikitla, yesterday said she could not comment on the issue as she was on leave and not up to speed with the latest developments on the foreign judges' issue.