March 20, 2014 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Editor and human rights lawyer held for criticizing judicial system

Reporters Without Borders condemns the detention of Bheki Makhubu, the editor of the Nation news magazine, and Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer who writes opinion pieces for the magazine, for articles criticizing Swaziland’s judicial system and chief justice Michael Ramodibedi in particular. They have been held for the past two days on contempt of court charges that are due to be heard in open court on 25 March. “The arbitrary arrests of Maseko and Makhubu are the latest examples of the persecution that awaits anyone voicing the least criticism of Swaziland’s institutions,” said Lucie Morillon, head of research and advocacy at Reporters Without Borders. “In a country where the only voices tolerated are those of King Mswati and his government, how much leeway do journalists have to cover and comment on local news developments? None.” Morillon added: “The detention orders that the chief justice himself issued, without any respect for Swaziland’s legal standards, are blatant violations of freedom of expression, motivated by a desire for personal revenge. We call on the authorities to free these two men at once.” After chief justice Ramodibedi issued the arrest warrants on 17 March, police delivered them to the offices of Makhubu and Maseko in the capital, Mbabane. They arrested Maseko later the same day but did not find Makhubu at his office or home. He was arrested the next day after going to a police station. Ramodibedi ordered them held for seven days at a summary and arbitrary closed-door hearing on 18 March. It violated normal criminal justice procedures, under which they should have appeared before a judge in open court. They were not able to speak to their lawyers before the hearing, and they were not able to defend themselves or request release on bail during the hearing. They have been held ever since at Mbabane’s Sidwashini provisional detention centre. The two men are accused of contempt of court in connection with two articles in The Nation in February about government motor vehicle inspector Bhantshana Gwebu’s arbitrary arrest on 20 January for issuing a ticket to a judge’s driver. The articles criticized Ramodibedi and questioned the impartiality of Swaziland’s judicial system. This is not Makhubu’s first run-in with Ramodibedi. On 17 April 2013, he was convicted of contempt of court and defaming the chief justice in connection with two articles in The Nation questioning the judicial system’s independence. Reporters Without Borders criticized the court at the time for ordering him to pay a fine of 200,000 emalangeni (16,700 euros) or serve two years in prison if the fine was not paid within three days. He neither paid the fine nor went to prison because his lawyers were able to lodge an appeal, which has yet to be heard. A member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, Maseko was charged under the law on sedition and subversive activities in 2009, but the case has yet to be tried. Swaziland is ranked 156th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Photo : Entrance to Swaziland High Court