/ 30 June 2015

Swazi court orders release of editor, human rights lawyer

Bheki Makhubu
Bheki Makhubu

Maseko and Makhubu were convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to two years in prison in March 2014. On Tuesday, Swaziland’s Supreme Court ordered their immediate release.

According to the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which has supported their case, their release follows an appeal against their conviction, which was not opposed by the directorate of public prosecutions.

In a statement released on Tuesday, SALC said the case was initially presided over by Judge Mpendulo Simelane, since charged with corruption and defeating the ends of justice. SALC said that even those within the Swazi justice system believed Simelane should have recused himself.

Caroline James, a lawyer at SALC, said, “We are delighted at today’s result. The Crown’s concession that grave errors were made during the trial is a vindication for Maseko and Makhubu.”

She said this recognition by the prosecution “that the court and the role of the prosecution is to prosecute and not to persecute” was “extremely welcome”.

She said the law has been applied “at the whim of individuals” by the Swazi court system, in the recent past.

“Today’s victory is a victory not only for Maseko and Makhubu and their families, but for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Swaziland more generally,” said James.

Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi was criticised in articles written by Maseko and Makhubu in theThe Nation magazine.

It was widely believed that the imprisonment of the two was an attempt to silence their criticism of the judiciary, and the Swazi monarchy more generally.

In a letter written on the anniversary of his detention, in March this year, Maseko said that he and Makhubu were not intimidated by their imprisonment.

“We need to unite around a discussion table to negotiate the birth of a new democratic society,” Maseko wrote.

Previous attempts to have the two released were unsuccessful. In November last year, the court could not hear the appeal because Maseko’s case had not been transcribed. However, at the same time, another prisoner whose case had not been transcribed was freed.

Maseko was represented by Mandla Mkhwanazi, and Bheki Makhubu was represented by Advocate Anna-Marie de Vos SC and Ncamiso Manana.

Two other critical voices, and political leaders, Mario Masuku and Maxwell Dlamini, are also in a Swazi jail. They were arrested after a May Day rally, on May 1 last year, and have yet to appear for a bail application. SALC is also assisting in their case.