Joint Statement: Civil Society Organizations Condemn Unreasonable Sentence of Prominent Swaziland Activists

Salc : Staff Writer

The undersigned organisations, meeting at the Public Interest Law Gathering in Johannesburg, condemn the conviction and unreasonable sentence handed down by Judge Mpendulo Simelane in the Mbabane High Court in Swaziland.

Last week, Judge Simelane found human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and magazine editor Bheki Makhubu guilty of contempt of court and today sentenced them to a two-year jail term without the option of a fine. Judge Simelane argued that the articles penned by Maseko and Makhubu in The Nation magazine interfered with the administration of justice as they referred to a criminal matter still pending before court. Maseko and Makhubu had criticised the arrest and detention of government vehicle inspector, Bhantshana Gwebu, in January this year after he charged the driver of one of the Supreme Court judges with following an unauthorised route. The articles amounted to legitimate comment on the conduct of the judiciary and should not have led to the contempt of court charges brought against Maseko and Makhubu.

The pair has been unlawfully detained since their arrest in March and the trial has been fraught with procedural irregularities. Maseko and Makhubu had sought Judge Simelane’s recusal due to his personal involvement in the Gwebu case, which had been the subject of the articles in question.  In his judgment, he provided evidence related to the Gwebu matter, which remained unchallenged as he had not testified during the trial. To compound the trial’s injustices, Judge Simelane imposed the maximum possible sentence of two years imprisonment on Maseko and Makhubu and, in addition, a E100 000 (USD10 000) fine on the magazine and its publisher. The sentence failed to take into account the time Maseko and Makhubu had already spent in detention while awaiting trial.

The case has highlighted the increasing repression of activists in Swaziland and the conviction and sentence will further entrench the culture of fear in that country.  The criminal justice system is being used by the authorities to silence those who dare speak out against the conduct of those in power. This case is a stark reminder of the lack of independence of the Swazi judiciary and we believe that this is a serious concern for the region as a whole.

Maseko and Makhubu’s legal representatives are discussing the option of filing an appeal against the conviction and sentence. We call on the Swazi judicial and political authorities to ensure that an appeal be heard expeditiously and that due process be followed throughout the process.

Independence of the judiciary is a cornerstone of democracy and we wish to express our solidarity with Maseko and Makhubu and the people of Swaziland.

Socioeconomic Rights Institute (SERI)

Wits School of Law

Lawyers for Human Rights

Section 27

Southern Africa Litigation Centre

ProBono.org

Legal Resources Centre

Centre for Applied Legal Studies

Black Sash

Students for Law and Social Justice

Right to Know Campaign

Freedom of Expression Institute

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights

Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network

Centre for Child Law

Further Info:

Nicole Fritz, Executive Director, Southern Africa Litigation Centre; Tel: +27 (0) 10 596 8538; Mobile: +27 (0) 82 600 1028; Email: nicolef@salc.org.za

Jacob van Garderen, Lawyers for Human Rights; Mobile: +27 (0) 82 820 3960; Email:Jacob@lhr.org.za