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Widow of murdered Eswatini human rights lawyer refuses state interrogation without legal team present

Widow of murdered Eswatini human rights lawyer refuses state interrogation without legal team present
Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko's wife Tanele at his memorial at the University of Pretoria. When Maseko was imprisoned in 2014/15, Tanele had travelled around the world calling for his release. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Tanele Maseko stands her ground against Eswatini police’s attempts at solitary interrogation, with international outrage and human rights defenders condemning the harassment and demanding a thorough investigation into her husband’s murder.

Tanele Maseko, the widow of slain human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, has turned down attempts by Eswatini police to subject her to solitary interrogation in the absence of her legal team.

On Tuesday morning, a day after Easter weekend, Tanele was summoned to Manzini police headquarters by senior police detectives investigating the brutal murder of her husband Thulani.

This was her second appearance at the police headquarters following last week’s widely condemned incident whereby Tanele was detained at Ngwenya Border Post, while entering Eswatini from South Africa with her children and helper.

During her detention, police unlawfully seized Tanele’s passport and cellphone without a court order or warrant. They then cautioned her to avail herself the following day before investigating officers at Manzini police headquarters.

In a statement, acting Eswatini Police National Commissioner, Lydia Dlamini explained that police wanted to “interview” Tanele “regarding the murder of her husband” adding that she was being sought by investigators because she was “the only adult present at the time of the incident”.

Dlamini further accused Tanele of reluctance to cooperate with the police.

However, international human rights organisations expressed outrage at the detention and questioning of Tanele, further urging Eswatini authorities to desist from harassing and intimidating her.

“These acts of harassment are clearly designed to cow Tanele from continuing to call on the Government of Eswatini to ensure an independent, thorough and swift investigation into the gruesome murder of Thulani,” reads, in part, a joint statement by the Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network.

Eswatini, Tanele Maseko

Police keep an eye on a group of activists who were demonstrating outside Manzini Police headquarters in support of Tanele Maseko. (Photo: Swaziland Rural Women Assembly)

Interrogation refused without legal support

When Tanele appeared before police investigators last Thursday, they insisted on interrogating her alone but she refused. Human rights lawyer Mzwandile Masuku, who accompanied Tanele to the police headquarters, said they couldn’t leave her alone “in some backroom on the first floor in the hands of seven gentlemen and a lady officer, without some sort of support”.

“The Royal Eswatini Police do not have a human rights compliance and customer care reputation,” said Masuku, hinting that as lawyers they were not comfortable leaving Tanele alone with police investigators.

Masuku further disputed that Tanele had refused to cooperate with the police.

“Mrs Maseko has, on many occasions, been calling and checking on the progress [and] developments with regards to the case. [Also] she has requested family, friends and concerned organisations to follow up with the Royal Eswatini Police. Actually, I can confirm that we have sat in meetings with [the] police enquiring about the progress [of investigations],” Masuku said.

While meeting with police investigators on Tuesday, Tanele again refused to be interrogated in the absence of her legal team. The meeting had to be adjourned as police maintained that they could not interrogate Tanele in the presence of lawyers and human rights defenders accompanying her.

In an earlier statement, Dlamini, the acting Police Commissioner had stated that Tanele’s insistence on being interviewed in the presence of her legal team was “against police protocols and procedures”.

“Government took seriously the death of Mr Maseko and is investing all efforts to identify those responsible for his death. The engagement with Mrs Maseko is crucial in obtaining vital information needed for a breakthrough in the investigation and therefore [she] must avail herself unreservedly. No amount of distraction will sway the focus of the investigation,” stressed the acting Eswatini Police Commissioner.

Human rights ‘harassment’ 

However, human rights defenders have slammed the police for the manner in which they have treated Tanele.

The African Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) has urged Eswatini authorities to “stop forthwith their harassment of Tanele Maseko”.

“It is very disturbing that the state can be mobilised to relentlessly torment and harass the family of slain human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko in this manner merely because of Tanele Maseko’s persistent demand to know who the killers of her husband are […],” reads a statement by WHRD.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) described the detention and questioning of Tanele Maseko as “…a thinly veiled campaign to smear the character of a dignified widow under the guise of conducting an investigation”.

International concern

Furthermore, the US Embassy in Eswatini called upon the Eswatini Government “to pursue vigorously the investigation into Thulani’s death, while also following its own due process in all aspects of the investigation, including treatment of witnesses”.

Meanwhile, the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), a pro-democracy civil society organisation which Thulani Maseko chaired, has reiterated calls for Eswatini authorities to allow external and independent investigators.

“The fact is that this case is high profile for both local and international interest. We implore the police to allow external assistance in the investigation” said MSF Spokesperson, Sivumelwano Nyembe.

Masuku, the human rights lawyer representing Tanele, said the “new vigor to investigate the matter was encouraging” adding: “It is good that this matter is being brought back on the table by the police as opposed to what has been the case for [over a] year”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eswatini authorities accused of attempting to silence Justice for Thulani campaign

He further stated that Tanele was unshaken and remained resolute and determined to get justice for her slain husband despite repeated threats and harassment by authorities.

Meanwhile, the police have since handed back to Tanele her cell phone and passport. But her lawyers would be approaching the courts to force the police to reveal if they did in any way tamper with Tanele’s cell phone.

Tanele Maseko, Eswatini

Tanele Maseko, the widow of slain human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, in conversation with Charge d’Affaires Caitlin Piper at the US Embassy in Eswatini. (Photo: USA Embassy Eswatini)

“The lawyers are now seeking relief that the court orders the police to provide a report or statement detailing what, if any actions were taken to view, download, save or alter in any way or form any item from Tanele’s cellphone. The lawyers are also seeking an order allowing Tanele to be represented by a lawyer of her choice at all times when she interfaces with the police,” reads in part a statement by the African Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD).

The statement adds that the decision to seek relief from the court is meant to “protect Tanele’s rights” and does not in any way “diminish the capacity of the police” to investigate the murder of Thulani Maseko.

Of late, the Eswatini government has resorted to what is widely seen as desperate attempts to counter and discredit the Justice for Thulani Maseko campaign, which remains adamant that Maseko was allegedly assassinated by state agents.

The Eswatini government together with pro-establishment and anti-reform entities appear to have resorted to disparaging Tanele every time she speaks on different platforms around the world, galvanising support for the justice for Thulani campaign.

Just recently, Tanele addressed the Magnistky Human Rights Awards in London in December 2023, while accepting the “Outstanding Lawyer” prize on behalf of her late husband. She accused Eswatini authorities of murdering her husband. And in an apparent retort, Eswatini Government Spokesperson, Alpheous Nxumalo accused Tanele of “cashing in” on her husband’s death. DM

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