/ 16 July 2015

Court frees jailed Swazi activists

Mario Masuku.
Mario Masuku.

The president of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), Mario Masuku, and the secretary general of the Swaziland Youth Congress, Maxwell Dlamini, were arrested on May 1 2014, and have been in legal limbo since then.

The two were arrested after addressing a May Day rally, at which they called for democratic reforms in Swaziland. They were charged with terrorism, subversion and sedition. Pudemo was declared a terrorist organisation in 2008.

Twice denied bail in 2014, the two appealed to the Supreme Court after the lower court’s refusal to release them. According to Caroline James, a lawyer at the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), which assisted Masuku and Dlamini, the prosecution on Tuesday said that the pair should be released on bail because of the delays in their previous attempts to be released.

In their second attempt to get bail in October 2014, their lawyers told the court that Masuku’s health was rapidly deteriorating. Masuku is 65 and has diabetes. He also needs physiotherapy due to leg pains he suffers as a result of his disease.They were being held at the Zakhele Remand Centre in Manzini.

Dlamini is 23 and his university studies had to be put on hold because of his arrest and detention.

The appeal, upheld on Tuesday, was initially due to be heard in May. It did not go ahead because Swaziland’s Supreme Court was suspended after its chief justice, Michael Ramodibedi, fled the country after an arrest warrant was issued against him.

Their first bail application was refused because judge Mphundelo Simelane believed that Dlamini and Masuku would commit similar offences if released.

In a recent interview with the Mail & Guardian, James said this was “completely unfair” because the two had never been convicted of a crime.

On Tuesday, James said the decision had “reinforced the importance of an independent judiciary, able and willing to make decisions based purely on legal principle”.

Meanwhile, Masuku and Dlamini have joined four other activists in challenging the constitutionality of Swaziland’s terrorism charges. The case will be heard in September.

The six applicants believe that the terrorism laws criminalise political statements. This is because at least four of the applicants, including Masuku and Dlamini, were arrested on terrorism charges because of statements they had made.

Among the co-applicants are Swazi human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu, who have been jailed in Swaziland. They were released from jail on June 30 2015 after two years of detention. Their charges stemmed from critical articles they co-authored which were critical of the Swazi monarchy and political system.

Masuku and Dlamini were represented by Advocate Anna-Marie de Vos and Leo Gama.