International outcry over Swazi activist's death in detention

Amnesty International and Cosatu have called on the South African government to take action against Swaziland following last week’s death in detention of Swazi political activist Sipho Jele.

Jele (35) was arrested under the controversial Suppression of Terrorism Act at a May Day rally in Mbabane for wearing a People United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) T-shirt. Pudemo was banned in 2008 as a “terrorist group”. The Times of Swaziland reported last Friday that the activist was “found hanging from the rafters of a toilet” at Sidvwashini correctional facility.

In a statement issued on May 10 Amnesty International said there was “independent medical corroboration” that Jele had been “subjected to torture” in 2005, after his arrest on treason charges.
Amnesty questioned why an inquiry into the torture allegations had not been made public and called on Swaziland Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini to ensure that the inquest into Jele’s death is “conducted fully, impartially and in an open manner”. Amnesty also urged South Africa to put pressure on the Swazi government to “uphold its obligations under international and regional human rights law”.

Meanwhile, local and international human rights groups have expressed outrage at the government’s initial claim that Jele committed suicide. The Swaziland Democracy Campaign said Jele was “murdered in cold blood by the Swazi police” and described his death as “part of a strategy to eliminate all forms of opposition”.

Cosatu spokesperson Bongani Masuku told the Mail & Guardian that Jele’s death could be directly linked to “the order issued by King Mswati when he said akukhanywane, meaning now we must throttle those who resist his oppressive rule”. Masuku said that Cosatu is demanding a boycott of goods to Swaziland “to ensure that the royal economy suffers”. The organisation also called on media to “expose” Mswati’s “tinkhundla [elitist] regime” as “corrupt and greedy rulers who continue to enslave the people in the name of culture and tradition”.

According to Muzi Masuku, programme manager of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, Jele’s death should not be seen as an isolated incident.

“Human rights has gone to the dogs in Swaziland,” he told the M&G. “Killings by the police of suspects are rife. Inquests into those killings are an extremely rare commodity. If they do happen, they are never conclusive, or the reports are so twisted no one is able to make head or tail of them.”

Masuku described Swaziland as a “major blemish in the region due to its failure to embrace democracy” and called on Southern African leaders to “begin a genuine dialogue” with the Swazi government.

Vincent Dlamini, deputy secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, told the M&G that his organisation will march with other activists on Friday in protest against Jele’s death and to press for an end to human rights abuses.

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