In what has been seen as a major blow to the journalism profession and human rights in Swaziland, respected editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko have been convicted for contempt of court.
Delivering his judgment, controversial Judge Mpendulo Simelane also launched an attack on journalists, saying the Swaziland Constitution does not grant absolute rights for freedom of expression and therefore journalists must exercise caution.
Judge Simelane also rejected the defence’s citing of a United States case on contempt on the grounds that Swaziland was not like the US and its laws are clearly inapplicable, therefore the kingdom cannot be benchmarked against it.
Makhubu and Maseko were facing contempt charges initiated by Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi for articles published in the February edition of the Nation relating to contempt charges, also brought by Ramodibedi, against a chief government vehicle inspector who dared to ticket a judge’s driver. The driver was ferrying Judge Esther Ota without the required authorisation for the use of a government car.
The articles in the Nation attacked the arrest of the inspector as an abuse of authority.
Makhubu and Maseko were arrested on March 18 and thrown into Mbabane’s Sidvwashini Prison on the orders of Ramodibedi, who arraigned them in his chambers and did not afford them the opportunity for legal representation. Denied bail as a “flight risk”, they have remained in a cell with hardened criminals for almost four months.
Simelane, who is seen as Ramodibedi’s stooge, today delivered a highly emotional and hostile judgment. He rejected almost all the evidence submitted by the defence and its witnesses, saying that in his opinion the Crown had proven its case beyond reasonable doubt.
During mitigation, director of public prosecutions Nkosinathi Maseko implored the judge to pass the harshest sentence as a deterrent to other would-be offenders and to show that contempt of court is a serious offence. Simelane reserved sentencing for a date still to be announced.
“It was expected. The indications were quite clear and the defence did raise it when leading evidence that they had heard rumours that a judgment of three years had already been drawn up from the beginning,” said a human rights lawyer interviewed at the high court after the verdict.
Many supporters who attended the hearing shared the same sentiments. They said this case had been treated politically from the onset.
Further compounding their concerns was the fact that Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Sibusiso Shongwe was seen coming out of Simelane’s chambers before the judgment.
“I bet we will be vindicated now as things are going as expected. For instance, how do you explain the presence of the minister [of justice] here just before the judgment?” wondered the lawyer.
Serving a suspended sentence
Sources at the high court have said Makhubu and Maseko would be sentenced to no less than three years.
Makhubu is already serving a suspended sentence of three months for a previous conviction on contempt of court charges, also for criticising Ramodibedi.
Members of political parties were barred from entering the court premises, so they continued to show support for Makhubu and Maseko throughout the proceedings in peaceful protest and political songs outside the gates.