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Lawyers live in fear as Swazi state intensifies crackdown on activists

Lawyers live in fear as Swazi state intensifies crackdown on activists
Kenyan human rights defenders at a candlelight vigil in Nairobi on 28 January 2023, following the murder of Swazi human rights defender Thulani Maseko. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Irungu)

The murder of prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and the subsequent admission by the government that it hired ‘security experts’ to deal with pro-democracy activists have created a state of fear in Eswatini.

As the “security experts”, who are largely seen as mercenaries, rove at night in search for those perceived by the state to be terrorists, pro-democracy activists are fleeing in droves to neighbouring South Africa while those who remain pull back from protest lines.

The Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), an organisation comprising civil society and religious and political groups, which Maseko chaired, estimates that “close to 200” activists have fled to South Africa in recent months. 

Some activists who have remained have been charged with terrorism, among other charges. They are reported to be struggling to find defence counsel, since lawyers fear representing those perceived to be enemies of the state.

In February this year, for example, The Times of Eswatini reported that members of the Swazis First Democratic Front, Sibusiso Nxumalo and Muzi Mnisi, who are both facing 38 charges under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, were struggling to get lawyers to defend them. 

The callous murder of Maseko in January, which is largely believed to have been an assassination, has left even the most courageous and unflinching lawyer shaking in their boots. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Leading Swazi activist Thulani Maseko shot dead at his home

Some lawyers believe Maseko’s killing could have been part of what increasingly seems like a concerted crackdown by the state on lawyers, specifically those defending political activists. 

Though Maseko had also become a vocal protagonist in the pro-democracy movement, some in the legal fraternity doubt the narrative that his murder was a political assassination.

Instead, they believe the renowned lawyer was “eliminated” to ensure that nobody challenges the legality of the partnership between the so-called security experts and the government, and to further ensure that activists charged with terrorism and treason have no legal representation. 

Threats against lawyers

Months before Maseko’s life was snuffed out a series of events occurred in Eswatini which highlighted a hefty crackdown on human rights lawyers by the state.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Who killed Swazi human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko?  

On 30 August 2022, Sicelo Mngomezulu, a South African-based Swazi lawyer who was representing two incarcerated members of parliament, was banned from entering Eswatini. In a Government Gazette signed by Minister of Home Affairs Princess Lindiwe, a close relative of King Mswati, Mngomezulu was declared an “undesirable and prohibited immigrant”. This is despite the fact that Mngomezulu was born in Eswatini and obtained his law degree from the University of Eswatini.

They stopped next to me [and] the lone occupant on the back seat had a gun and he aimed at my face. He shot, and I accelerated.

Amnesty International condemned the prohibition of Mngomezulu, urging Eswatini authorities to lift the ban immediately. 

“The declaration of a prohibited migrant notice against Sicelo Mngomezulu, one of the legal representatives of the incarcerated members of parliament, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, is deeply troubling. It is designed to rob Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube of legal representation of their choice, intimidate him and others from speaking their minds, challenging the authorities, and defending human rights and the rule of law,” it said.

This month both MPs were found guilty on charges of terrorism, sedition and murder – a ruling that has been widely condemned.

Swazi riot police cordon off  streets in Manzini, Eswatini’s main city, on 7 September 2011 to stop about 1,000 protesters from marching through the city centre. Clashes erupted on the third day of protests against King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, who is accused of bankrupting the impoverished nation’s treasury while enjoying a lavish life with his 13 wives. (Photo: Jinty Jackson / AFP)

In September 2022, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, an NGO that uses law to defend human rights across southern Africa, warned that the Eswatini government had “demonstrated commitment to silencing dissent through force over the years”, adding: “In what increasingly seems like a state-sanctioned assault on human rights, justice and the rule of law, the situation in Eswatini has deteriorated recently.”

After the prohibition of Mngomezulu, another human rights lawyer survived what many believed was an assassination attempt. Maxwell Nkambule, who was very close to Maseko, was shot at by unknown gunmen in broad daylight on 7 December 2022. He had been consulting a client at Big Bend Correctional Centre and was driving towards the Siteki Magistrates’ Court. 

“[As I was driving] on that very hot day, I suddenly took notice of a white sedan with the park lights on following me… I then stopped on the [side of] the road unsuspecting of any danger. They stopped next to me [and] the lone occupant on the back seat had a gun and he aimed at my face. He shot, and I accelerated. Then a chase ensued till they gave up,” Nkambule told Daily Maverick from his hideout. 

At the time, Nkambule was representing Ncamiso Mabuyakhulu and Philani Sihlongonyane, activists facing 29 counts of alleged terrorism and murder of security forces. 

Nkambule reported the incident to the police. He also took officers to the scene and gave investigators descriptions of the gunmen and the vehicle they were in. However, police are yet to arrest anyone.

Nkambule is believed to be in hiding in South Africa. 

At the moment I am not in a position to take any case until there is clarity that as a human rights lawyer I will not be killed for simply representing a person perceived to be anti-government.

Since then the activists he was representing have struggled to find another lawyer since most lawyers fear for their lives. “Some lawyers have declined to assist [my clients]. There is a general fear among lawyers,” Nkambule said.

Following the prohibition of Mngomezulu, the attempt on Nkambule’s life and the murder of Thulani Maseko, some activists believe the state is out to silence human rights lawyers, who have unflinchingly defended political activists facing sedition and terrorism charges. 

Recently, the Times of Eswatini reported that the case of two activists facing terrorism charges for allegedly killing security forces and being members of the underground Swaziland International Solidarity Forces, had been postponed because they were struggling to find a defence counsel. 

‘Afraid of getting killed’

Human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze is not surprised by the sudden fear that has gripped Eswatini lawyers following Maseko’s murder.

“It is true that lawyers are no longer keen in taking matters involving political activists. It is a new development. Previously political activists would be arrested and would not struggle to obtain legal representation. No sane person would want to die and leave behind young children who have no capacity to fend for themselves. Lawyers are human beings first; therefore, they are afraid of getting killed,” he says. 

In 2014, Gumedze was threatened by the late Eswatini prime minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini after he had spoken against the government at a protest in Washington, DC. Despite the threat, Gumedze courageously continued his human rights work. 

However, of late he has not taken on any matters involving political activists.

He explains: “At the moment I am not in a position to take any case until there is clarity that as a human rights lawyer I will not be killed for simply representing a person perceived to be anti-government. The situation in 2014 and now is different. 

“In 2014 there was no serious threat to life. Now the State has hired private military security companies that have a bad track record. It is no longer easy to have the courage to fight for fundamental rights and freedoms”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Thulani Maseko assassination — allegations of SA ‘mercenary involvement’, and a witness details suspicious police activities 

Two other prominent human rights lawyers were sought for comment on the fear that has engulfed the legal fraternity in Eswatini, but they have not responded to queries from Daily Maverick

The Law Society of Swaziland (LSS) has not responded to our questions either. 

Questions were emailed to the society’s secretary-general, Charity Simelane, on 22 February and she confirmed receipt. Subsequent calls were made to LSS president Mangaliso Magagula, who promised repeatedly that they would respond to our queries, but at the time of compiling the story they had not responded.

However, in the 15 February 2023 article in the Times of Eswatini, Simelane was quoted saying: “The Law Society views these reports in a serious light and is extremely concerned about them as attorneys have a right to practise law freely and independently of any intimidation or interference of any nature.”

A candlelight vigil held in Nairobi, Kenya, on 28 January 2023 following the murder of Swazi human rights defender Thulani Maseko. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Irungu)

Furthermore, the newspaper quoted Simelane as having confirmed that they had received complaints from lawyers alleging that they were being harassed and intimidated in the line of duty. “We record that we are looking into the allegations and are already engaging authorities about them,” she was quoted saying.

Phumlani Dlamini, the legal adviser at the Eswatini Commission on Human Rights and Public Administration, said: “If the activist(s) can inform of instances where attorneys have declined to take up their cases, it would be a first and important step from which the commission can engage with LSS (Law Society of Swaziland) and other stakeholder(s) to ensure that every person’s right to representation is protected regardless of political affiliation.” 

He added that the commission had been advocating for “the right to access justice for all”, and that their efforts had led to the establishment of Legal Aid, which provides free legal representation to suspects. 

Meanwhile, the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) has called on the Eswatini government to “repeal the Suppression of Terrorism Act, which has been used to harass and intimidate lawyers, human rights defenders and legitimate political opponents”.

SAHRDN regional protection officer Charles Chimedza said: “The government of Eswatini should take steps to create a more conducive environment for the free and independent practice of law. This includes ensuring that lawyers are not harassed or intimidated and can represent their clients without fear of reprisals. The legal profession and human rights defenders at large can also play a role in reassuring lawyers that they are not alone and have the support of their colleagues”. DM

The identity of the writer is not disclosed for their own safety.

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