11 August 2015
Johannesburg – A leading human rights group on Tuesday warned of “grave human rights concerns” – including allegations of widespread torture of detained soldiers – in Lesotho despite the intervention there by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Last month SADC leaders appointed an independent commission of inquiry, headed by a Botswana judge, to probe the recent killing of the former Lesotho army chief Maaparankoe Mahao by soldiers, allegations by the government of a mutiny plot in the army and other issues.
Mahao was killed near his home outside the capital Maseru in June, allegedly while resisting arrest in the mutiny plot.
The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (Salc) said more than 50 soldiers who supported Mahao had been arrested in connection with the coup plot allegations.
And it said, after a fact-finding mission to Lesotho this month, that habeas corpus applications brought to the courts by relatives of the detained soldiers indicated that many had been “snatched” or “kidnapped” by heavily-armed, masked men dressed in black “with no clear procedure of arrest, no arrest warrants, and no clarity of charges under which the arrests were effected”.
The habeas corpus applications also alleged “a pattern of abuse and torture”, Salc said. “Once abducted, the soldiers were typically taken to Sedibeng, in an area that is particularly cold and where it often snows in the mountains.
“Here the detainees were forced to walk on ice, sprayed with cold water or thrown into a frozen and dirty stream. Wet and in the cold, they are then tied to a pole and hooded overnight whilst being insulted and asked for information. While tied, some detainees are beaten and gun shots are fired around them.”
“Following the habeas proceedings in the recent weeks, a number of the detainees have presented with swollen and bleeding wrists, some incapable of walking due to what appears to be pain in their feet.
“Soldiers have appeared emaciated and underdressed, with some weeping in open court and one in particular, Colonel Stemmere, whose case was detailed in the press, bled from his face in open court when describing his mistreatment.”
Salc said it had also heard allegations that detainees’ arms and feet were chained or tied behind their backs, while rubber tubing was tied over their faces and mouths, suffocating them.
“Practices similar to water boarding are described as well as practices of beating the detainees on their feet or waists where tissue damage does not show.
“A number of the soldiers have been described as becoming incontinent (unable to control urination or defecation) after the abuse they sustain.”
Salc also said that many of the detainees had now been imprisoned for over 70 days, although the Lesotho Defence Force Act stipulated that no person may be held for more than 42 days without facing court martial.
And Salc expressed further concern that soldiers would remain even longer in custody because the army had informed them that they would not be released until after the commission of inquiry had completed its work. That was because last month’s SADC summit had decided that the court martial proceedings against the soldiers should be suspended while the commission of inquiry investigated the mutiny allegations.
The Salc report said it had also heard allegations that the armed captors and military lawyer had threatened the lawyers and family members of the detainees when they tried to speak to speak with the detainees in court.
“The masked militia armed with AK47s were reported as having ‘forced themselves’ into the judge’s chambers to accompany the detainees and sustaining a heavy presence in court in a manner intended to intimidate the judiciary.”
Salc raised other concerns about the commission of inquiry. It said many Basotho had complained about the government extending the commission’s terms of reference beyond those given by the Sadc summit. The main concern is a provision that the commission should re-examine the appointment of the Judge President of the Court of Appeal, even though this question had already been settled by a judgment of the Court of Appeal.
“It is understood that the provision’s inclusion reflects ongoing efforts by the current political regime to reinstate the controversial and criminally-accused former Chief Justice of Swaziland, Michael Ramodibedi, into this position,”Salc said.
However, Salc said it believed that South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, SADC’s Lesotho facilitator, had made it clear on a recent visit to Lesotho that the terms of reference of the commission would remain only those provided by SADC.
Salc said that there were also concerns for the security of those who cooperated with the commission, with threats of reprisals against individuals and NGOs.
Salc said there was also a lack of clarity about the legal powers of the commission. Under Lesotho law it was understood it would have no judicial or criminal investigatory powers.
Civil society, heads of churches and the legal community were concerned with the lack of clarity regarding to whom the Commission would report – whether to SADC or the Prime Minister of Lesotho – and how binding its recommendations would be.
They were also concerned about the lack of transparency as the default position of the commission would be to work behind closed doors.
And Salc noted that Lesotho society had asked for a commission comprising both foreign and domestic members whereas the commissioners listed in the Government Gazette so far were all foreigners.
Ten of the commissioners were sworn in on Monday. The commission was given just 60 days to complete its inquiry when SADC leaders announced it early last month. But it is not clear when that period will be dated from.