The crisis in Swaziland’s judiciary deepened this week following a media report that Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi had prepared arrest warrants for three high court judges.
A source close to the judiciary confirmed the report on May 19 by the Swaziland Observer, saying that Ramodibedi had stayed the execution of the warrants because of an angry protest by other judicial officers.
The Observer reported that warrants had been prepared for the arrest of judges Mumcy Dlamini, Bheki Maphalala and Mbutfo Mamba, all seen as judges of independent mind.
It said the warrants had not been executed but did not offer an explanation.
Ramodibedi has publicly stated that he does not speak to the media and could not be contacted this week.
AmaBhungane did contact the registrar of the high court, Fikile Nhlabatsi, who, when asked whether the judges faced arrest, said: “There is no such a thing.”
Asked whether the Observer report was false, she hesitated before saying “yes”.
Swaziland’s Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Sibusiso Shongwe, was reported in the rival Times of Swaziland as describing the Observer’s report as “nonsense”.
“It is evident that they are trying to pursue their own agenda,” he was quoted as saying. “They are trying to bring the judiciary into disrepute but I can assure them they will not succeed. The judiciary will come out stronger.”
Media stands by its story
Ramodibedi told the Times that the Observer report was part of a smear campaign against him.
But despite Shongwe’s demand that it publish a retraction, the Observer carried an editorial comment on May 20 standing by its story.
In addition, a source with intimate knowledge of the judiciary confirmed the paper’s version of events.
The source said that the execution of the warrants had been delayed because two foreign judges of the supreme court – Swaziland’s court of appeal – had threatened an immediate walkout if the arrests took place.
The supreme court is in session until May 30, and there are fears that the arrests could take place immediately after it goes into recess.
The source also alleged that Ramodibedi has ordered the police and officers from Swaziland’s anti-corruption unit to monitor the three judges, as well as another independently minded judicial officer, Qinisile Mabuza.
Angering the wrong person
All the judges allegedly facing arrest are said to have recently angered Ramodibedi.
Dlamini overturned a warrant he personally issued for the arrest of editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, currently facing contempt charges related to articles they wrote criticising the chief justice.
Judge Maphalala granted bail to government vehicle inspector Bhantshana Gwebu, who was arrested on the strength of a warrant issued by Ramodibedi.
Ramodibedi’s alleged move against the three judges is seen as closely related to an application by the Law Society of Swaziland challenging his appointment of the judge in the Makhubu trial, Mpendulo Simelane.
The society last month filed an application calling for Simelane’s removal on the grounds that he does not meet the constitutional requirement of 10 years’ experience as a working attorney.
But the chief justice has refused to allocate the case, and the Observer reported that he no longer trusts the nine judges of the high court.
“He is now trying to create positions by removing the three judges so he can appoint interim officials. He is afraid that independent judges might rule against him on Simelane,” said a source.
Responding this week to Shongwe’s attack on its report, and to the minister’s complaint that the newspaper should have approached him for comment, Observer managing editor Mbongeni Mbingo questioned the minister’s involvement.
Mbingo reportedly said Shongwe should not encroach on matters involving the judiciary because he is a member of the executive arm of government.
In another development this week, Simelane rejected an application by Makhubu and Maseko for the contempt of court charges against them to be thrown out for lack of evidence.
They are due to appear in court again on May 28.
Problems for Ramodibedi back home
Meanwhile, amaBhungane has reliably established that Ramodibedi is still facing impeachment charges in his home country, Lesotho, despite his recent resignation as an appeal court judge in that country.
Ramodibedi faces charges including fraud and certain actions as Swaziland’s chief justice, including his role in the sacking of respected high court judge Thomas Masuku.
He resigned from his position as president of the court of appeal a month before a panel of three South African judges was due to hear the application for impeachment.
But Lesotho King Letsie III rejected his resignation and ruled that the impeachment process should continue.
A source in Lesotho said there was speculation that Ramodibedi would approach the courts to force the king to accept his resignation.
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.