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18 November 2017 13:52 (South Africa)
Politics

A Lesotho reporter recounts hours of tense and intimidating interrogation

  • KEISO MOHLOBOLI
    KEISO MOHLOBOLI
  • Politics
A Lesotho reporter recounts hours of tense and intimidating interrogation

The trouble started at about 17:00 on June 23, when my phone rang while I was having my hair done at Maseru’s My Vision salon. It was a police officer, Senior Superintendent Teboho Khesa, and he wanted to know where I was. By KEISO MOHLOBOLI.

The salon is close to the headquarters of the Lesotho Mounted Police. Minutes later two officers pulled up outside the salon in a white Lexus. I knew one of them – Khatleli Khatleli, the head of crime intelligence at Maseru’s Mabote police station.

That told me the police were taking this very seriously – I was scared, but tried not to show it.

Khesa had already told me that the police wanted to talk to me about my front-page lead in the Lesotho Times that morning about an extremely generous exit package for the Lesotho Defence Force head, Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli.

Drawing on three unnamed sources, the story said Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and his deputy, Mothetjoa Metsing, had negotiated personally with Kamoli after the SADC commission of inquiry recommended the latter’s removal in its report in February this year.

The sources said Kamoli demanded a R50-million golden handshake, but was talked down to R40-million.

Khatleli told me not be frightened because they were not kidnapping me – perhaps a reference to last year’s arrest of alleged army mutineers who were removed from their homes without explanation and held for weeks without their families knowing where they were.

In the back seat of the car I managed to fire off a text message to my Zimbabwean editor, Lloyd Mutungamiri.

With one cop in front of me and one behind I was marched up to the office of Senior Assistant Commissioner Seabata Tutuoane. Two assistant commissioners, Mahapela Loke and a woman I only know as Putsoane, entered and sat down on chairs along the walls of the office.

Khesa started what turned out to be a tense and intimidating five-hour interrogation. At no stage did the officers question the truth of my story – in fact, they asked if it was true and where the negotiations between Mosisili and Kamoli took place.

Their main interest was clearly in finding out/who my sources were. I told them that if I’d been able to reveal them, I would have included them in the story.

They then suggested that I choose an officer that I trust and tell him or her. I refused.

They told me to turn my phone off and not to touch my recorder.

During the interrogation I started to understand why the government and the security forces were reacting so hysterically. They told me my story had caused chaos in the army.

Tutuoane left the room on three occasions. When I was left alone with him for a brief time, he said he was talking to “the authorities”, who wanted to know how far they had got with me.

At 22:00 I was allowed to leave on condition that I write a letter of apology to Kamoli, copied to Commissioner of Police Molehlehi Letsoepa and published in the Lesotho Times and its sister paper, Sunday Express, apologising to Kamoli and withdrawing the allegation about the R40-million.

I was convinced my story was true, but agreed. They were clearly not going to release me until I co-operated and I feared what might happen to me if I spent the night in a police cell.

The government hates the Times, which they regularly accuse of being an opposition front. They have withdrawn all government advertising from the paper. In 2014 Lloyd and another reporter were arrested over a story that top government officials faced treason charges after a coup attempt and ordered to identify the source, which they refused to do.

The publisher, Basildon Peta, has been repeatedly attacked on radio by Bokang Ramatsella, an executive member of one of the ruling coalition parties, as a CIA agent who is working hand in glove with the US ambassador to undermine Mosisili’s government.

Next morning, as I was sitting in Lloyd’s office and writing the apology, three police officers arrived, announced that both I and Lloyd must come with them and drove us both to Mabote police station. There we were separately interrogated about the same article.

This time, senior officers of all Lesotho’s intelligence agencies sat on the interrogation panel: crime intelligence, military intelligence and the National Security Service.

They said that if I did not disclose my source, there would be chaos in the country and that something very dangerous was brewing in the LDF.

I picked up from their exchanges that Kamoli’s supporters were unhappy that they had supported him through thick and thin, and that he was now leaving the defence force a rich man while they had nothing.

The officers refused to charge me or let me see a lawyer, saying this would only happen once I named my source.

They were also very angry about a satirical column that appeared alongside my story, “Scrutator”, which they accused me of writing.

Pointing to a copy of the Times on the desk in front of them, they told me to read the column aloud. “Maybe you’ll hear the same disrespect in the article with your byline and what Scrutator said about the commander of LDF,” one officer said.

I refused to read the article and denied writing the column. I was then told to wait outside. After an hour of sitting on a wooden bench, I was told the police would continue their investigations and released without charge.

Lloyd was released on condition that he, the Times’s chief operating officer, Tshepo Tlapi, the publisher Basildon Peta and the head of production, a man I know only as Ngoni, report to the police station on June 27. Lloyd’s Zimbabwean passport was confiscated without any reason being given.

The interrogations were just the start of an escalating campaign against the Times.

Government sources told me a 20-person unit was assigned to tap my phone and monitor my Facebook account. I started staying in bed and breakfasts instead of at home, switched off my mobile and made increasingly rare appearances at the office.

On July 5 Lloyd and Basildon were interrogated again, and on the same day Basildon was driven to the Maseru Magistrate’s Court and charged under the Lesotho Penal Code of 2010 with crimen injuria and maliciously defaming Kamoli.

He was granted bail of R800 and surety of R30,000.

Four days later, at about 23:00, Lloyd was shot four times by unknown assailants through the open side window of his car as he arrived home in the suburb of Ha Thamae.

His wife, Tsitsi, found him slumped over the wheel with two bullet wounds to the face that shattered his jaw and another wound to the right hand.

When he regained consciousness he told Tsitsi that there had been two attackers, one of whom had fired into the bullet-proof windscreen and the other from the driver’s side.

He is recovering in a South African hospital after undergoing two operations to reconstruct his face.

Basildon’s case was postponed on July 19 after he failed to make an appearance, pleading through his lawyer that it would not be safe for him to re-enter the country.

My sources in government could not believe that I was still in Lesotho. “Are you really still here?” asked one of them. “Can you seriously believe you’re not in danger?

I crossed the border a week later. DM

  • KEISO MOHLOBOLI
    KEISO MOHLOBOLI
  • Politics

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