Amnesty International Report 2015/16 - The State of the World's Human Rights - Swaziland

Some prisoners of conscience and political prisoners were released but repressive legislation continued to be used to suppress dissent. Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly continued to be restricted.

Background

The USA ended Swaziland’s preferential trade agreement under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in January, citing the country’s failure to implement promised human rights reforms. The loss of preferential access to the US market for textiles led to factory closures and job losses. Following international pressure, the government responded by releasing a number of prisoners, including prisoners of conscience.

The government flagrantly violated the basic constitutional rights of unions and their leaders, teachers, political parties and civil society, but largely escaped sustained criticism in international media. This was partly because, on the surface, Swazi society appeared close-knit and relatively homogenous.

Legal developments

A rule of law crisis that started in 2011 persisted and took a new turn in April with the arrest of several judicial officers. It resulted in the suspension and subsequent dismissal of Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi, a Lesotho national, for “serious misbehaviour”.

On 17 April, the High Court issued an arrest warrant against Chief Justice Ramodibedi and High Court Judge Mpendulo Simelane on 23 charges brought by the Anti-Corruption Commission, including defeating the ends of justice and abuse of power. The Chief Justice evaded arrest by refusing to leave his home. On 7 May, the government suspended Chief Justice Ramodibedi, replacing him with an acting Chief Justice, Bheki Maphalala. Following an inquiry by the Judicial Services Commission into three charges of abuse of office, King Mswati III dismissed Michael Ramodibedi on 17 June.

On 20 April, Judge Mpendulo Simelane and the Minister of Justice, Sibusiso Shongwe, were arrested on charges including abuse of power and defeating the course of justice. High Court Judge Jacobus Annandale and High Court Registrar Fikile Nhlabatsi were also arrested on charges of defeating the ends of justice after they tried to overturn the arrest warrant against Chief Justice Ramodibedi. They were all later released on bail. Sibusiso Shongwe was dismissed as Minister of Justice by King Mswati III on 21 April. Charges against Jacobus Annandale and Fikile Nhlabatsi were dropped. The two were assisting the prosecution in the case against Sibusiso Shongwe, who was arrested for a second time, in August, on further charges of corruption. He was again released on bail.

The suspension and dismissal of the Chief Justice meant that the Supreme Court postponed hearing appeals from May to July. A number of Swazi judicial officers were appointed to the Supreme Court in late June, fulfilling requirements under the 2006 Constitution.

Unfair trials

Politically motivated trials and laws that violate the principle of legality continued to be used to suppress dissent. There were some signs of improvement with the release of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, but these gains remained fragile without fundamental legislative reform and full commitment to human rights standards.

Editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko were released on 30 June following an appeal hearing before the Supreme Court. The Crown Prosecutor conceded that the state had no case against them. The two men had been arrested in March 2014 and convicted of contempt of court after a blatantly unfair trial. They were arrested after publishing articles in The Nation magazine, questioning judicial independence and political accountability in Swaziland. The fine imposed on the magazine was also overturned.

The authorities continued to use the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act and the 1938 Sedition and Subversive Activities Act to limit freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly by arresting or threatening to arrest human rights defenders and political activists exercising their rights. Pre-trial proceedings continued in five separate cases of 13 people charged under these laws after arrests dating back to 2009. All the accused were out on bail but appeared in court on remand. Ten were charged under both laws for acts such as shouting slogans in support of the proscribed opposition party, the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), possessing PUDEMO leaflets, wearing PUDEMO t-shirts or calling for a boycott of elections in 2013. All trials were postponed pending the outcome of a constitutional challenge to the two laws. The High Court began hearing the application in September but postponed the matter to February 2016.

Among those charged were several people involved in PUDEMO, including Secretary General Mlungisi Makhanya, president Mario Masuku and youth leader Maxwell Dlamini. Mario Masuku and Maxwell Dlamini were arrested on 1 May 2014 and remanded in custody in connection with slogans they allegedly shouted at a Workers’ Day rally. They were released on bail on 14 July 2015 by the Supreme Court. They had unsuccessfully applied for bail twice in 2014, and had appealed the High Court’s refusal to release them to the Supreme Court.

Freedom of association

Police prevented members of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) from meeting in February and March. The Secretary General of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), Muzi Mhlanga, was assaulted by police during an attempt by TUCOSWA to hold a meeting at the SNAT offices in Manzini on 14 March.

After effectively being banned for over three years, TUCOSWA was finally registered by the Swaziland Ministry of Labour and Social Security on 12 May.

Freedom of expression

Human rights defenders, political activists, religious leaders and trade union officials were threatened with violence by police, arrest or other forms of pressure as a consequence of their advocacy of human rights, respect for the rule of law or political reforms.

Deaths in custody

Deaths in police custody under suspicious circumstances remained a concern. On 12 June, a Mozambican national, Luciano Reginaldo Zavale, died in police custody after being arrested for possession of a stolen laptop. Independent forensic evidence indicated that he did not die of natural causes. An inquest into his death started in September.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture in police custody also persisted. In March, while in custody at Big Bend Prison, lawyer Thulani Maseko was held in solitary confinement for three weeks as punishment for an alleged breach of prison rules. He had no access to legal counsel during the disciplinary proceedings and the length of his confinement can be regarded as a form of torture and other ill-treatment.1

PUDEMO president Mario Masuku was denied access to adequate and independent medical care for complications relating to diabetes throughout his 14 months in pre-trial detention at Zakhele Remand Centre and Matsapha Central Prison.

Women’s rights

Despite high levels of gender-based violence, the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill had not been enacted by the end of the year. The Bill had been under discussion by Parliament since 2006. The original progressive draft has been diluted and the Bill now contains a narrow definition of rape and excludes marital rape, among other concerns.

Death penalty

One person remained under sentence of death. No death sentences were imposed during the year. Two death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by the King.

  1. Swaziland: Amnesty International condemns repression of fundamental freedoms (AFR 55/1345/2015).