Former Swazi political prisoners Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko have demanded multi-million rand settlements from King Mswati’s government for wrongful imprisonment.
Makhubu, a newsmagazine editor, and Maseko, an attorney, were tried together and jailed for 15 months from March 2014 until the Swaziland Supreme Court freed them in June 2015, two weeks before their scheduled release.
The court ruled they should not have been convicted in the first place, but stopped short of declaring their incarceration a fulfillment of a personal vendetta by former Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.
“(Makhubu’s) case was widely reported by the Swazi and international media and he was depicted as a convicted criminal. In addition, he was forced to spend 15 months away from his work and family,” stated Makhubu’s letter of demand prepared by his lawyers.
Makhubu wants R3,65 million from government, claiming R2,35 million for malicious arrest, prosecution and detention, R500,000 for defamation of character, legal costs and R800,000 for emotional trauma, shock and discomfort.
“(Makhubu’s) cell which was in the maximum security section of the prison with a wall surrounding it was overcrowded and our client was forced to sleep on the floor with only one thin mat and no sleeping pillow,” related Makhubu’s letter.
Maseko is demanding R20 million from government. He was imprisoned for 470 days by Ramodibedi’s associate Judge Mpendulo Simelane for contempt of court after Makhubu printed in his magazine an article by Maseko critical of Swaziland’s justice system.
Both Simelane and Ramodibedi were fired earlier this year on corruption grounds and for defeating the ends of justice. Their dismissals were not related to Makubhu and Maseko’s convictions but for allegedly cheating King Mswati of tax revenue.
Citing a conflict of interest, the Supreme Court ruled that Simelane should have recused himself. In a complete reversal from the trial, Swaziland’s Director of Public Prosecutions, to whom Makhubu and Maseko sent their letters of demand, did not contest the court’s view that the evidence against the pair was faulty and they should not have been prosecuted in the first place.
The European Union, United States and several international human rights groups observed the trial. The proceedings exposed the nature of Swaziland’s judicial system that critics say is controlled by judges appointed by King Mswati to do his bidding. All judicial appointments are made by Mswati, who also appoints the Prime Minister, cabinet and a large section of the legislature.
Caroline James, an attorney with the Johannesburg-based Southern Africa Litigation Centre, said after Makhubu and Maseko were released, “the Crown’s concession that grave errors were made during the trial is a vindication for Maseko and Makhubu. The recognition by the prosecution and the court that the role of the prosecution is to prosecute and not persecute is extremely welcome in Swaziland where the law has been applied at the whim of individuals.”
In August the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) recommended that government compensate Makhubu and Maseko for wrongful imprisonment.
“Reparations should be provided, especially with regard to their unlawful and arbitration detention,” said The Hague-based organisation.
It added that the rights of the two men to a hearing by an impartial tribunal had been violated throughout the proceeding. They had been improperly convicted in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and had been given disproportionately severe sentences (of) two years imprisonment.
In response, the cabinet press secretary Percy Simelane told the Swazi Observer that government would not pay compensation, and dismissed the ICJ as mere “observers”.
“We do not entertain the (ICJ) report save to say recommendations are not commands,” the government spokesman said.