Africa

Swazi editor Makhubu kept in maximum security prison

Twane Baines

Bheki Makhubu, editor of the Nation in Swaziland, is being held in a maximum security prison before his trial for contempt charges start next week.

Bheki Makhubu. (AFP)

Bheki Makhubu is obviously a very dangerous man. He has been locked up in a maximum security prison for three weeks with hardened criminals, refused bail and forced to wear leg-irons when he appears in court.

Released for three days on the order of a judge, he was rearrested and returned to jail.

Before his arrest, he says armed police officers stormed his parents' homestead and surrounded his aunts' houses demanding to know his whereabouts. Vanloads of armed policeman follow him whenever he is transported to court.

His trial begins next Monday. And this is the second time he has been in serious trouble: last year he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison or a R200 000 fine.

A murderer? Armed robber? In fact, Makhubu is a pillar of society, the editor of Swaziland’s respected monthly news magazine, the Nation. And his "crime" has been to criticise, in the Nation's columns, Swaziland’s controversial Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.

In the current matter, Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko are facing contempt charges for articles published in the February edition of the Nation relating to contempt charges, also initiated by Ramodibedi, against a lowly government vehicle inspector who dared to ticket a judge's driver.

The driver was carrying the judge, Esther Ota, without the required authorisation for the use of a government car.

The articles in the Nation attacked the inspector's arrest as an abuse of authority.

In his column, Makhubu compares Ramodibedi to Caiphus, the High Priest of Judea implicated in the condemnation of Jesus, saying that he had "'massaged' the law to suit his own agenda".

Makhubu and Maseko were arrested on March 18 and thrown into Mbabane's Sidvwashini Prison on the orders of Ramobidebi, who arraigned them in his chambers and did not afford them the opportunity for legal representation.

Denied bail as a "flight risk", they remained in a cell with hardened criminals for 20 days before a court granted an application for their release, on grounds that Ramodibedi had no power to issue an arrest warrant.

Rambodibedi appealed, and last Wednesday the judge who is hearing their case, Mpendulo Simelane, had them rearrested and put back behind bars. Ramodibedi and Simelane are said to be close.

Earlier the two men applied to Simelane to recuse himself, arguing that he was conflicted because one of the offending articles questioned his appointment. He rejected the application.

The chief justice appears to have a very thin skin. Last year Mkhubu was convicted on contempt charges after he ran an opinion piece in the Nation criticising him, among other things, for using the law to settle personal scores.

In an interview last week during his brief spell of freedom, Makhubu said: "I am not a political activist. I am a journalist. I write news. Everything I do flows from my journalistic judgment.

"I wrote an article I believed was of national interest, and because I like to think I understand constitutional law, I believe free speech means we can participate in matters of national importance that touch upon us as a people.

"That is the only way the leadership will get feedback on how we think and what our aspirations are."

Makhubu said that he had learned of the raid by armed police on his relatives while he was returning from Johannesburg to Swaziland after a business trip. "What puzzles me is that the police know where I live in Mbabane with my wife and children. I tried to make calls to various people to get more details, but to no avail."

He pointed out that if he was a flight risk, he could have easily turned around and stayed in South Africa after being informed that the Swazi police were seeking him. However, he had continued his journey and reported to the police as soon as he got home. "Thulani [Maseko] and I were taken to see the chief justice in his chambers and then to the maximum correctional facility at Sidvwashini."

He said that the full reality of their situation hit home the when they were ushered into the cell that contained 36 other suspects and convicts.

"I had to share my life with them for the next three weeks, and I must say that they were mostly friendly. I can even say some of them, including men accused or convicted of murder, rape and armed robbery, became my friends."

Makhubu said that he and Maseko had been forced to wear leg-irons whenever they left their cells, such as during court appearances. Questioned about this by journalists, Commissioner of Correctional Services Mzuthini Ntshangase said the chains had been required for security reasons that "could not be discussed with the media".

Said Makhubu: "We were chained every day. However, I must hand it to the guys at the correctional facility – when we were out of the public eye they would immediately remove the chains. They seemed to be reluctant participants."

Makhubu also revealed that when he and Maseko were being transported to court "there would be two cars with heavily armed officers following us".

"I don't know why, but we were under high security – as if someone was going to spring us," he said with a laugh.

Other than their court appearances, the only time they left their cell was when they received visitors. They received up to 16 visitors a day, for five minutes at a time.

Makhubu said that his wife had been a pillar of support, but his imprisonment had taken its toll on her. "My son, who is in his last year in high school, came to see me in jail. I tried to explain things and instil in him the need to concentrate on his lessons."

"My whole family – and I have a big family – was amazing. They held prayer meetings for me."

Makhubu said he had also been overwhelmed by the support and solidarity he received from journalists, human rights organisations and even ambassadors.These include the Africa Leadership Initiative, of which Makhubu is a fellow.

Another ALI fellow, editor of the Hindustan Times and former Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes, said that Makhubu's plight was "a ludicrous and infuriating situation which I hope brings home to South Africans and others in the region just how grim the state of Swaziland's justice system is". 

Chronology of events

March 18        Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi issues warrants of arrest for Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko 

March 21        Makhubu files application for bail 

March 25        Makhubu withdraws bail application 

March 28        Maseko challenges Ramodibedi’s warrant of arrest. The case, before Judge Mumcy Dlamini, is postponed to April 3, with Makhubu applying to be a jopint applicant. and again to April 4 

April 4            Judge Dlamini reserves judgment for special sitting on April 6 

April 6            Judge Dlamini sets aside warrants of arrest, Makhubu and Maseko are released from custody 

April 7            Ramodibedi files notice of appeal against judge’s decision 

April 9            Judge Mpendulo Simelane issues new warrants of arrest; Makhubu and Maseko are taken back into custody. Their lawyers file notice of appeal against Judge Simelane’s decision

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