Johannesburg, 20 March – The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), SADC Lawyers Association (SADC LA) and Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) express their deepest concern at the irregular arrests and detentions of prominent Swazi human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko and editor-in-chief of The Nation magazine, Bheki Makhubu.
Maseko and Makhubu were arrested on Monday and charged with scandalising the judiciary and contempt of court in relation to an article written by Maseko and published by The Nation earlier this year. The two were detained at the Mbabane Police Station and, on the orders of Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi, were denied access to their legal representatives.
On Tuesday, Maseko and Makhubu were brought before Ramodibedi in chambers and were remanded into custody at the Sidwashini Remand Centre. Although their legal representatives, Mandla Mkhwanazi and Ndoda Manana, were present, the in-chamber proceedings were entirely improper in that Swazi law requires that detained individuals be brought before a Magistrate in open court and given the opportunity to apply for bail.
This failure to adhere to proper legal procedure in this case warrants the gravest concern and is indicative of the impunity enjoyed by the highest judicial officials in Swaziland. Maseko’s original article, which sparked the arrests and detentions, had criticised the conduct of Chief Justice Ramodibedi in another legal matter. Not only did Ramodibedi insist on closed legal proceedings in remanding Maseko and Makhubu in custody, but in a highly irregular move, instructed the police to deny them access to their legal counsel prior to the hearing.
At present Ramodibedi is resisting impeachment proceedings, relating to allegations of abuse of office, in Lesotho where he has also enjoyed judicial appointment as President of the Court of Appeals.
The arrests and detentions of Maseko and Makhubu are to be condemned not only for their flagrant disregard of due process rights but also because they evince an ongoing and systematic campaign to deny Swazis their rights to freedom of expression, and to target those who dare oppose the authorities.
The ICJ, SADCLA and SALC call on the Swazi authorities to ensure that Maseko and Makhubu are able to apply for bail without delay, that they are accorded their full due process rights, and that the authorities desist in their ongoing persecution of those who raise critical voices.