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TROUBLED KINGDOM

Eswatini authorities accused of attempting to silence Justice for Thulani campaign

Eswatini authorities accused of attempting to silence Justice for Thulani campaign
Kenyan human rights activists hold a candlelight vigil after the murder of Eswatini human rights defender Thulani Maseko, in Nairobi 28 January 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Irungu)

A year after the murder of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, his family and comrades are still fighting for justice, while the Eswatini government resorts to desperate tactics to silence them, including accusing Maseko's widow of 'cashing in' on her husband's death and contaminating the crime scene.

A year has passed since renowned Eswatini human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was murdered. His grieving family and comrades have relentlessly been demanding justice which has hitherto been elusive.

Maseko (52), who was also a prominent political and social justice activist, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in front of his wife and children, while watching TV on the evening of 21 January, 2023. 

In recent months, pressure has been mounting on Eswatini authorities to bring Maseko’s killers to book. However, the government has responded by pushing back against the Justice for Thulani Maseko campaign, which is led by Maseko’s widow Tanele.

The Eswatini government has embarked on what critics have see as a a desperate attempt to counter and discredit the justice campaign, which remains adamant that Maseko was allegedly assassinated by state agents. 

As Maseko’s widow takes the podium at different platforms around the world to galvanize support for the campaign, the Eswatini governmen,  together with pro-establishment and anti-reform entities, have disparaged her.  

Eswatini Tanele Maseko

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko’s wife Tanele. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Last month, after Tanele addressed the Magnitsky Human Rights Awards in London, while accepting the “Outstanding Lawyer” prize on behalf of her late husband, the Eswatini government issued a rejoinder.

In her remarks at the award ceremony, Tanele accused King Mswati III of murdering her husband. She stated: “…for merely seeking justice, the horrible dictator shot him [Thulani Maseko] dead”. Her utterances seemingly rattled the cage of those in the higher echelons of power in Eswatini.  

King Mswati

Eswatini King Mswati. (Photo: Bess Adler / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a statement, Eswatini Government Spokesperson, Alpheous Nxumalo insensitively accused Tanele of ‘cashing in’ on her husband’s death. 

“It is ironic that Thulani’s widow, Tanele, has the audacity to stand at global platforms calling for Justice for Thulani, when her conduct in the country is further from a widow seeking justice for her husband but a woman on a global charade to cash in on her husband’s death,” said Nxumalo.

Nxumalo further accused Tanele of “contaminating the crime scene”. 

“It is worth noting that at the crime scene, she (Tanele) called her cronies first and contaminated the crime scene by removing critical evidence related to the murder and immediately stood at a pedestal to make unfounded utterances based on a misinterpreted speech delivered by His Majesty […],” Nxumalo added. 

This statement by the Eswatini government spokesperson quickly attracted international censure. Human Rights Foundation (HRF) CEO Thor Halvorssen posted a riposte on social media platform X (formerly Twitter).

Halvorssen added: “Tanele was in London to collect an award Thulani deserved for standing up against the dictatorship that you defend and represent (poorly, I should add). Your words and lack of empathy reveal the cold-blooded nature of the Swazi dictatorship. The campaign Justice for Thulani will continue until your murderous dictator “king” and his henchmen are brought to justice for the assassination of Thulani”.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network condemned the Eswatini government for the statement adding that it was “designed to cow Tanele from continuing to call on the government of Eswatini to ensure an independent and thorough investigation into the gruesome murder of Thulani”.

“Southern Defenders is deeply disappointed and highly concerned by the statement’s insensitive and offensive tone, which is not expected of a Kingdom that should be invariably exemplary to its citizens, supportive of a grieving widow and her family, and committed to rule of law and accountability, and ensuring that there is no place of extra judiciary killings in Eswatini,” read in part a statement by the organisation. 

Also, the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), an organisation comprising of civil society, religious and political groups, which Maseko chaired, expressed “deep concern over the insensitivity” of the statement. 

MSF spokesperson Sivumelwano Nyembe told Daily Maverick that “the statement fails to recognise the enduring trauma experienced by Comrade Tanele Maseko and lacks empathy for the profound loss she continues to endure”. 

He added: “It would have been more appropriate for the government to respond with a detailed report on the status of the investigation into the assassination of Comrade Thulani Maseko. This would not only demonstrate transparency but also show a commitment to addressing the concerns of the public and the affected family. MSF emphasises the importance of approaching this matter with compassion”.

Eswatini

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko’s wife Tanele spoke about the pain she has endured as a result of her husband’s passing. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Exiled Eswatini human rights lawyer Maxwell Nkambule condemned the Eswatini government for the insensitive statement. Nkambule fled Eswatini in December 2022 after his vehicle was shot at by unknown people in broad daylight as he returned from a correctional facility for consultations with political activists facing terrorism charges.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lawyers live in fear as Swazi state intensifies crackdown on activists  

In a statement to Daily Maverick, Nkambule said: “Of all the hurt, abuse and ridicule the widow has been subjected to, this coming from the government is pathetic. It mirrors the attitude of this oppressive regime. It has no shame. It goes after the dead, the living, and the widowed”.

When pressed by Daily Maverick to respond to the criticism he has received for his statement, Nxumalo expressed no regret. “I stand by every word, sentence and paragraph of that statement,” he said.

Meanwhile, recently appointed Eswatini Prime Minister Russell Mmiso Dlamini issued a statement on 2 January, 2024 threatening to take “decisive action” against those accusing King Mswati of having had a hand in Maseko’s assassination.

“Government wishes to take this opportunity to caution these individuals and human rights organisations to desist from their malicious campaigns to tarnish the name and reputation of His Majesty the King. Decisive action will be taken against these people and the relevant institutions shall be approached in order for this matter to be addressed once and for all,” reads in part Dlamini’s statement.

He stated that the allegations that King Mswati was involved in the killing of Maseko were ‘unfounded’ and that they were being peddled by individuals and human rights organisations hell-bent on slandering the Eswatini monarch.

The allegations that the killers of Maseko could have been acting on the orders of the state stem from Maseko being murdered barely 24 hours after King Mswati had sternly warned agitators for democratic reforms, saying they must not complain when the state deals with them since they are the ones who ‘started’ the violence.

The utterances of the monarch, who has been on the throne for 38 years, were widely construed as a declaration of war against activists who led the June/July 2021 pro-democracy protests, which were violently crushed by the state leading to at least 46 deaths and dozens of amputees. 

For the past 12 months, the Eswatini Government has been at pains trying to debunk any link between the utterances of the monarch and Maseko’s murder. 

However, in the absence of an independent investigation and/or arrests of suspects, political activists and the broader civil society remain convinced that Maseko was allegedly assassinated by state agents. 

Eswatini human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko

A year has passed since renowned Eswatini human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was brutally murdered. (Photo: Supplied)

“Here is a government that has exhibited a not-bothered approach, and all it gives us is lip service. There is no political will. [And] the reason is that King Mswati’s government is [allegedly] complicit in the murder of Thulani,” insisted Nkambule.

When asked by Daily Maverick to explain how the government has managed to round up more than a dozen activists in relation to the political unrest but has failed to arrest a single suspect in relation to the murder of Maseko and arson attacks on homesteads of political activists, the Eswatini government spokesperson did not give a direct answer.

Instead, he alleged that some of the suspects in the murder of Maseko were within the pro-democracy movement in Eswatini. “Not all suspects in the murder of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko have been investigated by the police because some of them, as you may know; are within the so-called “mass democratic movement” …they are on the run and hiding in South Africa” he alleged, without supplying any evidence.

Nyembe, the MSF spokesperson, expressed concern about the “Eswatini government’s defensive posture”, further urging the government to take “a proactive stance to ensure justice” for Thulani Maseko. “Providing necessary resources, support, and encouragement can contribute to a more effective investigative process. Additionally, if the state finds itself unable to solve the case independently, a more transparent approach could involve seeking external assistance,” Nyembe said. DM

Khulekani Nene is a freelance journalist and a Masters in Journalism student at Wits University

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Caroline de Braganza says:

    The fact that nobody has been brought to book for the assassination a year later comes as no surprise. Dictators, whether they are presidents or kings would never investigate this crime because they know who did it.

    My heart goes out to Thulani’s grieving widow, Tanele, that she should be subject to such vitriol. Those of us in the world who stand for justice and peace, must never back down.

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