Support grows throughout the world for the two journalists in Swaziland who were convicted of contempt of court and may face up to 10 years in jail.
Bheki Makhubu, editor of the Nation magazine and Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer who contributes to the small-circulation monthly journal, wrote and published articles critical of the Swazi judiciary and in particular the Swaziland Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.
They were convicted at the Swaziland High Court on Thursday (17 July 2014) and are in jail awaiting sentence. Media speculation in South Africa is that the pair could face up to 10 years in prison.
Amnesty International, which declared the pair ‘prisoners of conscience’ after they were arrested in March 2014, said the verdict was, ‘a violation of international human rights standards as well as the Constitution of the Kingdom of Swaziland’. It said in a statement the pair were exercising ‘freedom of expression’.
It called for the immediate release of the men and is urging supporters to write to Swaziland’s Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Sibusiso Shongwe to protest, ‘the arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and impartial proceedings’ surrounding the trial.
Part of the letter reads, ‘I urge Swaziland authorities to protect, respect and fulfil the right of freedom of expression for all people; to cease all harassment, intimidation and unlawful legal proceedings against human rights defenders; and to ensure that the persons responsible for such human rights violations are held accountable.’
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in a statement said, ‘The Court’s ruling and events that transpired before it fall short of Swaziland’s international obligations to respect the rights to freedom of expression and fair trial.’
It added, ‘The conviction of Thulani and Bheki shows that the law as implemented in Swaziland does not adequately protect the right to freedom of expression and that it unduly shields the courts from public scrutiny.’
The ICJ statement continued, ‘The ICJ and others have consistently raised concern that the arrest of the two human rights defenders, their detention and proceedings against them were inconsistent with international standards.
‘The legality of the arrest, detention and charges against Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu were successfully challenged before High Court Judge Mumcy Dhlamini, resulting in their release from custody for two days.
‘However, the men were rearrested and detained when the State appealed Judge Mumcy Dhlamini’s ruling. But were retained in custody when the two had cross-appealed that decision.
‘Their trial was also been characterized by numerous, often-long postponements.’
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, based in Washington, said that during the trial, ‘the presiding judge disallowed much of the defense testimony and reserved judgment on sentencing “indefinitely,” meaning the two will remain behind bars for the foreseeable future and raising further questions about the independence and fairness of Swaziland’s judicial system’.
Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center, said in a statement, ‘This arbitrary decision makes a mockery of justice and deals a severe blow to freedom of expression in Swaziland. King Mswati III must act swiftly to reaffirm the rule of law in his country and to ensure that his citizens’ fundamental human rights are protected.’
King Mswati rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch and appoints the judges in his kingdom.
Santiago A. Canton, Executive Director of Robert F. Kennedy partners for Human Rights, said, ‘A judicial system that is ready to deny freedom of expression to shield itself from criticism cannot legitimately claim to be administering justice.’
Canton added, ‘Public officials, such as judges and magistrates, by the very nature of their position should be freely scrutinized by the population.’
Sue Valentine, Africa Program Coordinator of the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) in Cape Town, said, ‘[The] ruling is an indictment of the thin-skinned Swazi judiciary that serves a monarch and denies citizens the basic right of freedom of expression.’
Freedom House, in Washington, called the conviction a ‘show trial’. Jenai Cox, program manager for Africa programs at Freedom House, said, ‘The judiciary has become an instrument of repression, as King Mswati attempts secure his grip on power.’
WHAT CONVICTED JOURNALISTS WROTE
COURT CONVICTS EDITOR AND WRITER
EDITOR AND LAWYER ‘FACE 10 YEARS JAIL’http://swazimedia.blogspot.com/2014/07/editor-and-lawyer-face-10-years-jail.html