Friday, May 1, 2020

Tenth anniversary of death in state custody of Swaziland democracy activist Sipho Jele

It was 10 years ago today (1 May 2020) that democracy activist Sipho Jele was arrested by Swaziland (eSwatini) police and later killed.

The 35-year-old Jele was arrested and charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act on 1 May 2010 for wearing a T-shirt supporting the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), an organisation banned in the kingdom, ruled by King Mswati, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.

He was taken to Manzini Police Station and then to Sidwashini Remand Correctional Institution. He was found hanging from a beam in a shower block on 3 May.

Sipho Jele

The inquest verdict delivered in March 2011 said in effect that Jele levitated to the ceiling unaided, tied an old piece of blanket around a beam and then around his own neck and then allowed himself to fall to the ground, thereby killing himself by hanging.

Coroner Nondumiso Simelane reported, ‘Further, although there was nothing found at the scene which the deceased could have used as a platform on which to stand to commit the suicide; upon closer examination of the scene and the photos of the deceased captured at the scene, and the pathologists concluding that “it is possible for the deceased to have mounted himself upwards from the floor and then suspended himself without the use of a platform,” and that “after the ligature was applied to the beam and neck he could have lowered himself and the feet would still be above the floor.” 

Simelane recorded Jele’s death as suicide.

Independent Specialist Forensic Pathologist Dr Ganas Perumal at the inquest said there was no evidence that Jele had been hanged.

According to a report in the Swazi News, Perumal said, ‘In this case there is no evidence of being hung. The perplexing thing is how he got suspended as there was no object on which he stood. In most cases the object is kicked away for the body to remain suspended. There was no such object that was found. That is the only feature that doesn’t confirm suicide. It is an enigma how he hung without standing on an object.’

Questioned by attorney Leo Gama on whether it was possible that Jele had tied the rope around his neck while seated on the beam he was found hanging from, and then threw himself down for the rope to tighten around his neck, Dr Perumal entirely ruled out this possibility.

‘In that case there would be stretching of the skin and moreover there would be problem with the spine. Looking at the findings, we can exclude that scenario. There are no features to suggest that,’ he said.

It emerged at the inquest that Swazi police and prison warders
lied a number of times about the circumstances up to the time of the death. They had claimed that they interviewed people who were in the same cell as Jele about the circumstances of his death; Perumal told the inquest that the cell mates denied being interviewed.

Perumal said, ‘I asked if any of the inmates had been interviewed to see if they had seen him and if any fight had ensued during the night of his death but none had been interviewed.’

This was not the first time that the police had been found out lying to the inquest. Previously, it was discovered that police had recorded in an official journal that Jele was in good health when he arrived at Manzini police station.

The official record – called the RSP 3 book – said the entry was made by Constable David Tsabedze, but he told the inquest that he never made the entry. 

This led to Attorney Leo Gama concluding that Tsabedze never made such entries and left the space vacant, but when the police heard that there was to be an inquest into the matter, someone filled up those spaces without telling Tsabedze. This was so they could show Jele was in good health when he left the police station.

Another anomaly was that although Jele was brought to the police station at 5.30pm on 1 May, he was only placed in a police cell at 11pm and no one could come forward to state what happened in the meantime.

In a bizarre twist the inquest heard that Jele asked to be sent to Sidwashini because he feared being ‘tubed’ (tortured and suffocated) if he was sent back to police custody. The Swaziland Director of Public Prosecutions Mumcy Dlamini said she was pleased to hear this because it meant Jele had not yet been tortured while at the police station. Dlamini told the inquest as far as she knew the only reason why Jele wanted to go to Sidvwashini was his fear of torture by police.

The inquest was told Jele was taken out of the Manzini Police Station’s cell for interrogation purposes for hours on different occasions, but one officer said it was unclear whether they also took him out of the building.

A jailor, Assistant Superintendent Richard Mthukutheli Fakudze, told the inquest he found Jele hanging from a concrete bar in the bathroom of his prison cell at about 5am on 3 May and he just knew Jele had killed himself. While he gave his testimony, he was interrupted by Prosecutor Phila Dlamini who warned him to only say what he observed and desist from giving an opinion. Fakudze had conclusively said Jele hanged himself yet he found him hanging. Said Dlamini, ‘If you insist that he hanged himself, you are actually saying that you saw him tying the blanket around his neck and hanging himself.’

Jele was charged under S19 (1) (a) of the Suppression of terrorism Act for wearing a T-shirt with PUDEMO written on it.

S19 (1) (a) of the STA states, ‘A person who is a member of a terrorist group commits an offence and shall on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten (10) years.’

Wearing a PUDEMO T-Shirt does not make you a member of PUDEMO and therefore the police had no reason to arrest Jele. But after police arrested him they then took him to his home and searched it and later alleged they had found materials linking him to the banned political organisation.

Amnesty International suspected that Jele might have been targeted for arrest at the May Day rally. Jele was one of 16 prodemocracy activists awaiting trial after they were charged with treason in 2005.

In a public statement, Amnesty said, ‘Mr Jele had been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in police custody in the past. He was detained by police in December 2005 and subsequently charged with treason along with 15 others. Mr Jele alleged that while in custody he was beaten around the head causing long-term damage to his hearing, for which Amnesty International was able to obtain independent medical corroboration. He also alleged that he was subjected to suffocation torture while forcibly held down on a bench by six police officers at Sigodvweni police station. Some of his co-defendants made similar allegations of torture by the police.

‘The presiding High Court judge hearing their bail application in March 2006 was sufficiently concerned to call on the government to establish an independent inquiry into their claims. An inquiry was established under a single commissioner who subsequently reported his findings to the then Prime Minister. To Amnesty International’s knowledge this inquiry report was never made public. Mr Jele and his co-defendants had still not been brought to trial on the treason charge by the time of his death.’

At the time of Jele’s death, PUDEMO said in a statement, ‘The Swaziland royal regime has always been giving the international community the wrong information that political dissenters are not imprisoned, harassed and killed. And that Swaziland is a peaceful country. But here is a political activist getting killed for attending Workers Day and wearing a PUDEMO T-shirt.’ 

Richard Rooney

See also

Swazi Police disrupts activist's funeral
Activist funeral – IPS report

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