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March 17, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Swazi writers still in jail a year later


A year has passed since the respected journalist Bheki Makhubu was jailed in Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Reporters Without Borders is appalled by his unjustified two-year prison sentence for contempt of court. The editor of the monthly magazine The Nation, Bheki Makhubu is one of the few journalists in Swaziland willing to hold the ruling elite to account. For his efforts, he has now spent a year in Sidwashini prison, just north of the capital Mbabane. Chief Justice Michael Ramadobedi summarily remanded him in custody in March 2014 on a charge of contempt of court. He was sentenced to two years in prison in July. His crime was writing a well argued and impassioned opinion piece detailing corruption in Swaziland’s judiciary. It shed a light on judicial abuse and reminded the custodians of the law that they should adhere to it themselves. The man who issued his arrest warrant and jailed him a year ago – Swaziland’s chief justice – was the main target of Makhubu’s criticism. Ramadobedi ordered Makhubu detained at an unconstitutional and arbitrary closed-door hearing on 18 March 2014, at which he was not able to defend himself or request release on bail, in the absence of his lawyer. “We strongly urge the Swazi authorities to overturn the March 2014 ruling and to release Makhubu and his fellow accused,” said Clea Kahn-Sriber, head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk. “By condemning this journalist and keeping him behind bars, the Swazi courts are violating both the country’s constitution, article 24 of which guarantees freedom of expression, and its international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified in 2004 by Swaziland. This parody of a trial was a disgrace and undermines the credibility of a government that declares itself a ‘monarchical democracy’. While the monarchy aspect is clearly functioning, it would be good for the Swazi people and Makhubu if they could experience the democratic aspects too.” Makhubu’s fellow defendant in this case was Thulani Maseko, a prominent human rights lawyer who was arrested at the same time and who was also charged with contempt of court in connection with an article he wrote for The Nation. Both men have been in jail ever since, except for three days in April 2014, when high court judge Mumcy Dlamini ruled that their arrests and detention were unlawful. Ramadobedi immediately appealed against that ruling and three days later another judge, Mpendulo Simelane, sent them back to prison. Plaintiff, witness and judge all at the same time Despite several applications for bail, Makhubu and Maseko remained in jail during last year’s drawn-out show trial, which Simelane presided. Widely seen as the chief justice’s unqualified stooge, Simelane was far from independent during the trial. The case is easier to understand when you know that Makhubu and Maseko also criticized Simelane in their offending articles. Therefore, the two judges pulling the strings – Ramadobedi and Simelane – were plaintiffs and judges in the same case. Lawyers tried several times to get Simelane to recuse himself from a case in which he had an interest – but to no avail. The two defendants were convicted of contempt of court on 17 July and were sentenced a week later to two years in jail. They were not offered the option of a fine instead of a jail term. At the same time, The Nation magazine was fined E100,000 ($US10,000). Makhubu and Maseko are expected to appeal against their conviction and sentence when Swaziland’s supreme court, which hears appeals against high court decisions, sits in May. No specific date has been set for an appeal hearing. If it goes ahead, legal observers do not expect it to succeed. If the appeal fails, Makhubu and Maseko will be due for release in July (yearly prison terms being counted as eight not 12 months). Campaign to release Makhubu and Maseko Reporters Without Borders co-signed on an open letter to the Swazi government and the Special Rapporteurs of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on their case and is supporting the #SwaziJustice campaign for their release. On 17 February, a petition drawn up by the American Bar Association’s Centre for Human Rights, international law firm Hogan Lovells and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) was lodged with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), asking it for an opinion on the detention of Maseko and Makhubu. Swazi human rights activist and lawyer Mary Pais Da Silva says the petition should help shed more light on their plight. Asked by Reporters Without Borders if she thought the Swazi government would respond to this petition, Da Silva said: “I don’t think they’ll respond, as usual. As long as (Chief Justice) Ramadobedi remains at the helm, nothing will change.” Swaziland is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.