Thirteen years after being arrested as a suspect in the failed Caprivi secessionist attempt, Rodwell Kasika Mukendwa became the first person to be acquitted of all charges in a surprise development last Friday in the nine-year-long Namibian court case.
The 68-year-old truck driver was accused number 106 in the trial in which a remaining 110 men face 278 charges of high treason, sedition, murder and attempted murder in connection with a failed August 1999 attempt to secede the Caprivi Strip from Namibia by force.
Deputy prosecutor general Herman January told Judge Elton Hoff in a specially convened session in the courtroom installed at Windhoek's Central Prison that a review of the case against Mukendwa showed that there was no evidence to convict him.
Of the five potential witnesses against Mukendwa, one had died and another had turned hostile, whereas the remainder made no mention of Mukendwa during their testimony, January said.
Ten of the suspects died of illnesses contracted in jail before the trial started and another eight died subsequently.
In proceedings that lasted barely 10 minutes, Judge Hoff acquitted the overjoyed Mukendwa, who told reporters afterwards that he intended to sue the state for his loss of freedom and income.
The trail of the remaining 110 suspects is set to resume on September 3, when the court will hear the defence's argument to have the charges dismissed after the state closes its case on February 7 after it has called its 379th witness.
The marathon case has its origins in a failed August 1999 attempt led by former opposition leader Mishake "Mistake" Muyongo to secede the Caprivi from Namibia and establish an independent state that would also incorporate parts of Western Zambia, commonly known as Barotseland.
The effort was doomed to failure: poorly led and lightly armed with some cast-off weapons they had bought from Angola's Unita, the rebels attacked the Sesheke borderpost and Katima Mulilo police station, killing one policeman.
When they tried to seize control of the local military base, it raised the alarm and their attack was beaten off as they fled into the surrounding bush. In the following three weeks, the Caprivi was sealed off as Namibian security forces rounded up anyone who could be connected to the plot.
<strong>Jittery security forces</strong>
In the ensuing melee, 17 died, many as a result of friendly fire from jittery security forces, including a local doctor who was shot by a trigger-happy soldier as he was making his way to a ward on the fenced-in hospital grounds.
Muyongo and his remaining followers who managed to evade their pursuers fled to Botswana in the first week of the uprising.
As leader of the Caprivi African National Union in the 1970s, Muyongo had negotiated a merger with Swapo and became one of its vice-presidents. After he was expelled from Swapo, he joined the opposition Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, but was also expelled from this party after his support for the Caprivi secession. He is currently in exile in Denmark.
Arrests continued to be made as late as 2003, with several of the accused saying the Botswana government had handed them over to the Namibian authorities illegally. A large number of Muyongo's followers still remain at the Dukwe refugee camp in Botswana.
The heavy-handedness of the Namibian security forces, however, did not do the prosecution's case any favours. Many suspects were tortured, beaten with sjamboks to within inches of their lives to reveal what they knew of the secessionist plot.
The authorities at the time brushed aside such concerns, saying it was more important to locate and arrest the other would-be plotters. But such evidence, it was always clear, would not stand up in court.
In one of many other setbacks – which included deputy prosecutor-general January being involved in a serious car accident in 2007 – the Namibian Supreme Court ruled two years ago that confessions made by 26 of the suspects were inadmissible as evidence because they were not properly advised of their rights.
Not that it matters much to those men, who are among the 30 accused who throughout have refused to recognise the court's jurisdiction over them and defiantly proclaimed their right to self-governance in the Caprivi.
With the case now entering its final stretch, calls have been made for a political rather than a legal solution to the case. But this appears to have fallen on deaf ears in the government.
Given the enormity of the task – the typed record runs at more than 20 000 pages by now with often contradictory evidence – Judge Hoff could well find it difficult to convict more than half the suspects, lawyers said.
More civil claims, therefore, seem to be in the offing.