Africa

Op-Ed: Trouble in the Mountain Kingdom

By Annabel Raw 26 June 2016

Saturday 25 June marked one year since the former commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahao, was shot and killed by members of his own army. His autopsy report revealed that he was shot eleven times in the head, chest and arm, including three shots fired at point-blank range with an AK-47. By ANNABEL RAW.

A Commission of Inquiry, initiated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), at the invitation of Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, found that there was a series of previous attempts against Mahao’s life by members of the LDF manifesting “a desire to have him dead” and dispelled efforts of those LDF members implicated in his death to cast the shooting as having occurred in the course of arrest.

The Commission recommended the “vigorous” pursuit of criminal investigations by the Police into Mahao’s death, to be conducted “expeditiously and comprehensively”. A year since his death, no movement has been made to investigate or prosecute his killers, while his wife and family continue to proclaim their pain and suffering, seeking justice for his death.

Mahao’s death is not an isolated incident in the brutal and cynical injustices that have played out in the Mountain Kingdom in recent years. Currently, 23 soldiers, alleged to be allies of Mahao, could face the death penalty for having allegedly plotted a mutiny in September 2014, specifically targeting the current commander of the LDF, Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli.

Their crimes are premised on a legal fiction created by Prime Minister Mosisili in May 2015, who then terminated Mahao’s leadership of the LDF retrospectively and further appointed Kamoli in his place, also retrospectively from August 2014. The soldiers, together with Mahao, are therefore accused of mutineering against an army commander who was not in fact the commander at the time in September 2014.

Despite this spurious premise, the accused soldiers remain in detention in the hands of the LDF, where repeated allegations of torture, prolonged solitary confinement and the denial of medical treatment and food continue to surface.

Accused soldiers have been brought to court through habeas corpus proceedings – bleeding, hooded and shackled, accompanied by masked LDF members carrying AK-47s in open court. The courts and commission have repeatedly noted evidence of torture of these detainees by the LDF, seemingly through methods that court records in the past decade indicate are frequently applied by the LDF against its enemies.

At least 16 of the accused soldiers remain under “closed arrest” despite not having faced trial by court-martial and contrary to military law time limits. This follows repeated objections in the courts and at the court-martial to serious pretrial prejudice faced by them before a court-martial stacked with members and prosecutors cited to be the alleged victims of their mutiny plot.

Their lawyers have repeatedly been denied access to consult with their clients and have faced harassment and arrest themselves. Despite being obstructed in its mandate by the LDF, the Commission of Inquiry stated that on the evidence available “the whole case of mutiny [was] highly suspect” and recommended an amnesty for all mutiny-accused.

In the meanwhile the prime minister and his government have evaded making public any decision on the implementation of the commission’s recommendations which include inter alia the removal of Kamoli. The LDF can no longer hold Lesotho’s political progress hostage. The government’s repeated vague assurances that it is considering the recommendations have however been accompanied by statements affirming its firm commitment to retaining Kamoli and the army’s position and resistance to addressing the abuses against the soldiers accused of mutiny.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has raised concerns on the torture allegations of the detained soldiers. Local, regional and international nongovernmental organisations continue to call for justice and accountability for these crimes and those surrounding the death of Mahao in addition to serious concerns around a spiralling climate of threats to the rule of law with threats and attacks against human rights defenders, lawyers and judges.

Further to this, development partners having been threatening withdrawal of substantial resources, trade opportunities and loans if these serious rule-of-law problems are not meaningfully addressed by Lesotho, putting Lesotho’s delicate developmental status at risk.

Two important dates this week provide opportunities to reinvigorate collective responses to demand respect for human rights and the rule of law in Lesotho. June 26, 2016 is International Day in Support of Torture Victims. The endemic use of torture by the LDF is a crime prohibited by international and domestic law that the Lesotho government is obligated to cease immediately, to take steps to ensure it doesn’t reccur, and to ensure accountability for perpetrators and redress for victims.

On June 28 2016, the SADC Double Troika will meet to discuss the political and security situation in Lesotho. NGOs and the families of the mutiny-accused soldiers and of the late Lieutenant-General Mahao are calling on governments in the region to use this forum to demand accountability and respect for the rule of law and human rights in Lesotho, starting with the implementation of the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations.

Bringing peace and stability to the Mountain Kingdom requires meaningful constitutional reform to ensure civilian control over the LDF whose hold over democratic progress is inappropriate in a country with a questionable need for an army of its size and power. DM

Annabel Raw is a lawyer with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

Photo: Former commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahao (M&G Africa)

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