The ICJ welcomes the decision of the Supreme Court of Swaziland to uphold the appeal of imprisoned human rights defenders Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu and ordering their immediate release.
“The decision marks a victory for the rule of law in Swaziland,” said ICJ Secretary-General Wilder Tayler. “We hope that this is but the first of many steps to come in restoring the integrity of the courts and reinforcing the respect for the rule of law that has undergone so much erosion in recent years.”
The ICJ considers that while the release of the two men is a necessary step for justice for the two men, alone it is not enough.
The government of Swaziland should ensure adequate reparation for their wrongful imprisonment.
More broadly, it must engage in legal and structural reforms necessary to ensure the fair and effective administration of justice, the independence of the judiciary and respect for human rights in the country.
Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu were arrested on 17 March 2014 under contempt of court charges for having written articles criticizing the manner in which the then Chief Justice (CJ), Michael Ramodibedi, had handled the case of another defendant, Bhantshana Gwebu.
Mr. Gwebu had been arraigned before the CJ without legal representation, charge sheet or being informed of his rights to apply for bail.
The trial of Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu was riddled with violations of basic due and fair trial principles, as affirmed by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), which ruled on a complaint in Thulani Maseko’s case.
The trial of Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu resulted in their conviction and a two-year prison sentence It was improperly conducted before a presiding judge, Mpendulo Simelane, who was a potential witness and had a direct interest in the case.
They had been in custody since their arrest, save for a three-day release in June 2014, and were due for final release on the 17 July 2015.
The ICJ has previously issued a number of statements after conviction by the High Court, underscoring that the prosecution and trial Court’s judgment had constituted a breach of Swaziland’s obligations to respect the rights to freedom of expression and fair trial.
The UN WGAD opinion issued on 22 April 2015 held that the deprivation of liberty of the accused was arbitrary and in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Swaziland’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The WGAD also emphasized that Swaziland should release the accused and facilitate the enforceable right to compensation in accordance with article 9 of the ICCPR.
In the appeal hearing yesterday, the Crown conceded most of the legal arguments by defence counsel and in particular that Judge Simelane ought to have recused himself from presiding over the case.
The Supreme Court’s written judgment is expected to be issued at the end of the session of its sitting.
Arnold Tsunga, Director, ICJ Africa Regional Programme, t +27 716 405 926 or +41 76 239 90 32 e: arnold.tsunga(a)icj.org
Matt Pollard, Senior Legal Adviser, ICJ’s Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, t: +41 22 979 38 12, e: matt.pollard(a)icj.org