/ 25 April 2014

Lesotho judge resigns in face of impeachment

Swaziland's judicial crisis spilled onto the streets of the Mbabane on September 21 2011 as lawyers protested against controversial Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi
Swaziland's judicial crisis spilled onto the streets of the Mbabane on September 21 2011 as lawyers protested against controversial Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi

In a move that has shaken the legal community in Lesotho and Swaziland, Michael Ramodibedi, the beleaguered president of Lesotho's court of appeal, has resigned.

Ramodibedi, who has for some years concurrently held the position of chief justice of Swaziland and president of Lesotho's highest court, was a few weeks away from facing an impeachment tribunal in Maseru on charges that included alleged insurance fraud and other charges of improper behaviour in Lesotho. A number of the charges also related to actions in Swaziland, where his period as chief justice has been dogged by controversy.

Earlier this month, Ramodibedi lost his last battle to stave off the impeachment process when five judges of the appeal court in Maseru held against his claim that the preliminary steps in setting up the tribunal were flawed.

Following the appeal court's ruling against Ramodibedi, it appeared there were no further obstacles to the sitting of the tribunal. According to justice sources in Lesotho, the tribunal, consisting of three retired South African judges, could have begun its work as early as May.

Then, on Wednesday, Ramodibedi's representative in Lesotho, Salemane Phafane, said: "He has already resigned, by letter, dated 22 April."

A legal adviser to Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane said that the letter of resignation had not yet been forwarded by the office of the king to the prime minister. Until the prime minister has seen the letter, no decisions could be taken.

Among the questions that now need to be answered, according to a source close to the department, is whether the king can refuse to accept the resignation, and whether the impeachment ­tribunal can continue in the absence of Ramodibedi.

There's also the question of whether Lesotho's prosecution services will now charge Ramodibedi directly in connection with an alleged insurance fraud. The police, after some investigation, had apparently been waiting for the outcome of the impeachment.

According to these allegations, Ramodibedi instructed his driver, a member of the security forces, to say that he had been driving Ramodibedi's official vehicle at the time of an accident. On the strength of the driver's statement, the insurance company paid out almost R500 000 for repairs, while Lesotho's government paid the excess.

The company claims, however, that it subsequently discovered that Ramodibedi's son had actually been driving the vehicle at the time of the accident without authority to do so.

The impeachment charges detail a number of other allegations of impropriety allegedly committed in Lesotho and Swaziland. And though these issues may well now never be canvassed in Lesotho, Ramodibedi's decision to stand down has caused considerable interest in Swaziland.

There, Ramodibedi has become an increasingly contentious figure by, for example, issuing warrants of arrest for activists, lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu, who criticised him in the media.

Although the chief justice seemed untouchable in Swaziland, Mbabane lawyers say he has become isolated among Swazi judges and is also – losing favour among the – country's political elite.