Game rangers in Swaziland shot dead a ‘mentally challenged’ man they suspected of poaching in what the newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati III called ‘cold blooded murder.’
It comes at a time when a United Nations’ group is questioning Swaziland about a law that gives game rangers immunity from prosecution for killing any person suspected of having poached and just after Survival International reported Swaziland ‘appears’ to have a shoot-on-sight policy that allows game rangers to kill suspected poachers.
The most recent killing happened at Sihhoye. The Swazi Observer reported on Wednesday (17 May 2017) rangers at Inyoni Yami Swaziland Irrigation Scheme (IYSIS) shot a resident who had lived all his life on the roadside and was known to the rangers who assaulted him and ‘finished him off as he ran for dear life’.
It added, ‘As if that was not enough the rangers are alleged to have emptied some of their ammunition on themselves in an attempt to either conceal evidence or to carry out orders from a superior who had been giving instructions throughout.’
The man was named as John Tsabedze and described as a ‘lone village wanderer who scavenged for a living at the Tshaneni shopping complex trash bins where he collected leftovers’. Local newspapers described him as ‘mentally challenged’.
The Observer quoted a herd boy who said he heard screams and struggles. The newspaper reported, ‘Tsabedze was dragged from his lonely hut on the grazing land strip nearly half a kilometre from the fence with the game farm across the road to the nearby bushes on the other side where he was finished off.’
The herd boy named Siyabonga Galela Magagula said he witnessed the entire event. The Observer reported, ‘He says Tsabedze kept on fighting and he, Magagula, heard a shot being fired, apparently Tsabedze had freed himself and ran to the bushes across the road fencing on the other end with the rangers in pursuit. After disappearing into the bushes there were more gunshots and there was a sudden deafening silence that was followed by another two shots. Minutes later Tsabedze’s still body was dragged to the roadside and that was the last he saw of the elderly citizen.’
The Times of Swaziland reported on Wednesday that according to witnesses Tsabedze, ‘was unarmed and he raised his hands to the air after he was surrounded by the rangers, which meant that he was no threat to them’.
The Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati, called the shooting, ‘cold blooded murder’.
Police fired teargas to disperse about 50 Sihhoye residents who later protested at Cattle Country against the killing.
The killing comes at the time that Swaziland’s delay in implementing the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is under scrutiny. Swaziland signed in 2004 and its initial report on progress was due by 2005, but 13 years later it has failed to report. After such a long delay, the Human Rights Committee (HRC) has scheduled a review of the kingdom in the absence of report. This review will take place in July 2017.
Among other issues the HRC is asking questions about ‘the right to life’ in the kingdom. On game rangers, it asks the Swazi Government this, ‘Please explain what measures the State party [Swaziland] is taking to bring the Game Act (No. 51/1953) as amended in 1991, which gives conservation police personnel (game rangers) immunity from prosecution for killing any person suspected of having poached, in line with the Covenant, and to train game rangers in human rights.’
Last month (April 2017), Survival International wrote to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, saying Swaziland ‘appears’ to have a shoot-on-sight policy that allows game rangers to kill suspected poachers.
In its letter it said, ‘We say “appears” because usually the policy is not defined by any law, or even written down. As a consequence, nobody knows when wildlife officers are permitted to use lethal force against them, and it is impossible for dependents to hold to account officers whom they believe to have killed without good reason.’
Stephen Corry, Survival International Director, said the shoot-on-sight policy directly affected people who lived close to game parks and guards often failed to distinguish people hunting for food from commercial poachers.
There has been concern in Swaziland for many years that game rangers have immunity from prosecution and can legally ‘shoot-to-kill’.
In 2016, the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO) reported to a United Nations review on human rights in Swaziland, ‘There are numerous cases where citizens are shot and killed by game rangers for alleged poaching as raised by community members in several communities such as Lubulini, Nkambeni, Nkhube, Malanti, Sigcaweni, and Siphocosini.
‘In terms of Section 23 (3) [of the Game Act] game rangers are immune from prosecution for killing suspected poachers and empowered to use firearm in the execution of their duties and to search without warrant,’ SCCCO told the United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of Swaziland in a report.
In January 2014, Swaziland’s Police Commissioner Isaac Magagula said rangers were allowed to shoot people who were hunting for food to feed their hungry families.
Commissioner Magagula publicly stated, ‘Animals are now protected by law and hunting is no longer a free-for-all, where anybody can just wake up to hunt game whenever they crave meat.’
He told a meeting of traditional leaders in Swaziland, ‘Of course, it becomes very sad whenever one wakes up to reports that rangers have shot someone. These people are protected by law and it allows them to shoot, hence it would be very wise of one to shun away from trouble.’
His comments came after an impoverished unarmed local man, Thembinkosi Ngcamphalala, aged 21, died of gunshot wounds. He had been shot by a ranger outside of the Mkhaya Nature Reserve. His family, who live at Sigcaweni just outside the reserve’s borders, said he had not been poaching.
Campaigners say poor people are not poaching large game, such as the endangered black rhinos, but go hunting animals, such as warthogs, as food to feed themselves and their families. Hunger and malnutrition are widespread in Swaziland where seven in ten of King Mswati’s subjects live in abject poverty. Many are forced to become hunters and gatherers to avoid starvation.
King Mswati III, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, has given game rangers permission to shoot-to-kill people suspected of poaching wildlife on his land and protects them from prosecution for murder in some circumstances.
Ted Reilly, the chief executive of Big Game Parks (BGP), which owns and manages Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and Mkhaya Nature Reserve and also manages Hlane National Park, the kingdom’s largest protected area, held in trust for the Nation by the King, holds a Royal Warrant to allow him to shoot-to-kill.
He has had this for at least twelve years. In 2004 Reilly appeared in a documentary produced by Journeyman Pictures in which he spoke of his relationship to the King and showed his warrant on camera.
The documentary commentator said, ‘He [the King] gave Ted a Royal Warrant that allowed him to arrest and if necessary shoot-to-kill the poachers.’
The commentator added, ‘The Royal Warrant, still in force today, protects rangers from prosecution for murder as long as the poacher draws his weapon first.’
Reilly said, ‘It is the biggest honour that you could possibly imagine.’
Reilly showed the documentary makers a specially-made fort with gun turrets, where rangers can hide to shoot at poachers. He also showed surveillance towers. ‘From here, we go out, we launch attacks,’ he said.
On camera, Reilly said the automatic weapons his rangers used against poachers, ‘are much smaller than the AK-47, but are equally as devastating. You don’t survive one of those shots if it hits you properly’.
Reilly told the documentary, ‘Our guys aren’t to be messed with. If they [poachers] come after rhino they’re going to get hurt, and if he gets killed or maimed, well, you know, who’s to blame for that?’
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