The US State Department has joined the growing chorus of outrage at the High Court conviction of an editor and a human rights lawyer in Swaziland for publishing articles critical of the kingdom’s judiciary.
In a statement the State Department said, ‘The United States is deeply concerned by the convictions of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and magazine editor Bheki Makhubu for contempt of court in the Kingdom of Swaziland.’
Makhubu and Maseko will be sentenced on a date still to be announced.
The State department said, ‘Their convictions for contempt of court for publishing an article critical of the High Court of Swaziland and their ongoing prolonged detention appear to undermine respect for Swaziland’s human rights obligations, particularly the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in Swaziland’s own constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States strongly supports the universal fundamental freedom of expression and is deeply concerned by the actions of the Swazi Government.’
Last month (June 2014) the United States withdrew preferential trading status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) from Swaziland because the kingdom ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, was not ‘making continual progress’ in enacting civil, political and workers’ rights.
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders described the conviction of Makhubu and Maseko after articles appeared in the Nation magazine, a monthly comment magazine with a print run of only 3,000 copies, as a ‘shockingly unfair decision in Africa’s last monarchy by a judicial system that claims to be independent but is not’.
Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk, said, ‘This conviction is completely absurd. Makhubu and Maseko have been convicted of criticizing irregularities in the judicial system by a man who is plaintiff and judge at the same time.
‘The way these proceedings have been conducted is proof of the accuracy of the articles for which they have been convicted. This is clearly a political verdict designed to gag Swaziland’s only independent publication. It will also send a chilling message to all other Swazi journalists.’
In the UK, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) Campaigns Manager Mark Beacon said, ‘This was a highly politicised trial and yet another example of how the Swazi regime uses the judicial system to crush anyone who dares to criticise them. ACTSA joins with voices in Swaziland calling on the government to release Thulani Makeko, Bheki Makhubu and all human rights defenders immediately and unconditionally.’
In the Swazi High Court, Justice Mpendulo Simelani said that despite the Constitution of Swaziland the right to freedom of expression was not absolute but limited.
Reacting to the verdict, the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) said, ‘The SAHRDN restates the well-founded and recognised position that the freedom of expression, and in particular freedom of the media and press, is critical to maintaining an open and democratic society.
‘The SAHRDN is of the considered view that in convicting the two for allegedly authoring articles critical of actions of the judiciary, by narrowly reading and interpreting the right to freedom of expression in the Swazi Constitution, Justice Mpendulo Simelane has exhibited the stark intolerance of the judiciary to criticism and impacted negatively on the perception of the ability of judicial officers to protect all citizens equally and without fear or favour.
‘These developments in Swaziland have exposed the judiciary and made a mockery to the state of democracy in Swaziland, SADC [Southern Africa Development Community] and indeed Africa as a whole. As one of the arms of government, the Swazi judiciary is expected to protect the fundamental rights of citizens and not contribute to their violation through court decisions.’
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in Geneva, in a statement said it was ‘concerned by Messrs. Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko’s conviction, as it only aims at sanctioning their human rights activities, and calls upon the Swazi authorities to release Messrs. Maseko and Makhubu immediately and unconditionally, and to put an end to the continued judicial harassment against them.’
In Swaziland itself, the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) Director Vuyisile Hlatshwayo said of the conviction, ‘It spells doom for the future of journalism and practicing journalists in the country," he said. "It further stifles media development because it instils fear in journalists and citizens who want to express their views.’
In a statement Hlatshwayo said, ‘MISA-Swaziland appeals to the Swazi authorities to uphold and respect section 24 of the Constitution, which protects free speech and media freedom. They must know that a free and independent media is the catalyst for the social economic development of any country. Because if people are not allowed to express their views on issues affecting their daily lives, there is no way the decision makers can make informed and relevant policies.
‘MISA-Swaziland reaffirms its position that dissenting views are healthy and are not to be confused with disloyalty. MISA-Swaziland continues to stand by prisoners of conscience Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko.’
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.’
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.’
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.
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.’
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