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Call to free Swazi editor

Three African journalist organisations covering the continent have condemned the arbitrary arrests of the editor of a Swazi news magazine and of a well-known human rights lawyer, the conduct of summary legal proceedings against them by a Chief Justice behind closed doors, the refusal of access to their lawyers by the judge and their being remanded in custody.

The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), The Africa Editors’ Forum (Taef) and the Southern Africa Editors’ Forum (Saef) say the arrests are serious breaches of international press freedom protocols as well as those of the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community.

The editor is Bhekithemba Makhubu, of Swaziland’s monthly news magazine, The Nation, and the human rights lawyer is Thulani Maseko.  Both are being held at Sidwashini Remand Prison in Mbabane. The men were charged with scandalising the judiciary and criminal contempt of court after The Nation published two articles by Maseko in February and March this year, in which he raised concerns about judicial independence and integrity in Swaziland. One of the articles was under the headline, “Mandela stood for values far removed from us”.

Their lawyers Mandla Mkhwanazi for Makhubu and Ndoda Manana claim the legal proceedings were highly irregular following the Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi issuing the warrants for their arrest and then holding summary proceedings against them in his chambers, where their lawyers were not allowed to make submissions on their behalf or apply for bail. Ramodibedi indicated to them that this was not just an ordinary matter but unique and not classifiable with other cases. Normally, a magistrate would have heard their case.

Makhubu was convicted last year in Swaziland’s High Court on two counts of criminal contempt of court in connection with the publication of two articles questioning the independence of the country’s judiciary and sentenced to a fine of US $45,000 (about R475 000) or two years’ imprisonment. His lawyers appealed before the expiry of the three days he was given to pay the fine and the case has still to be heard.

Maseko, a prominent human rights lawyer and a senior member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland (LHRS), has faced repressive charges under Swaziland’s Sedition and Subversive Activities Act brought against him in 2009, but for which he has never been brought to trial.

Ironically , Maseko planned to travel to Lesotho on March 23 to observe the appeal of Ramodibedi against impeachment proceedings launched against him by Lesotho’s Prime Minister last year. Lawyers wonder how the outcome of that appeal will impact on Ramodibedi’s position as Chief Justice in Swaziland.

The three African media organisations and Amnesty International are calling for the freeing of the two men unconditionally. Amnesty describes the action against them as amounting to “judicial retribution’’ and further evidence of Swaziland’s intolerance of freedom of expression.  Amnesty’s researcher on Swaziland, Mary Rayner, said, the two men were considered “to be prisoners of conscience, arrested and detained merely for exercising their right to freedom of expression’’.