Police and court officials in Swaziland have been caught on the hop by the support given to the magazine editor and human rights lawyer presently in jail awaiting trial on charges arising from criticisms they made of the judiciary in the kingdom.
At the latest hearing in the Swazi High Court, relatives and supporters of Nation magazine editor Bheki Makhubu and lawyer Thulani Maseko were denied entry into the courtroom.
The two men have made a number of appearances at the High Court since they were charged with Contempt of Court on 18 March 2014. At each appearance the courtroom has been packed with their supporters.
On Monday (14 April 2014), at the latest hearing, court authorities moved the session to the smallest court in the building, even though larger ones were available. This meant that many people who wanted to attend the hearing could not.
Police also reportedly blocked the entrance to the High Court to prevent supporters entering the building. The incident was widely reported with words and pictures on social media as it was happening.
The extent of the support in court for the two accused men is unprecedented in Swaziland, where King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch and free speech and freedom of assembly are severely restricted.
Two days earlier police had illegally abducted prodemocracy leaders to prevent them addressing a meeting calling for freedom in Swaziland. They were also expected to have spoken in support of Makhubu and Maseko.
Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been extensively used to inform people about the happenings in court. Broadcast media in Swaziland is state-controlled and has ignored the proceedings.
Of the two newspaper groups in the kingdom, one is in effect owned by King Mswati and the other has restricted its coverage. Innocent Maphalala, editor of the independent Times Sunday, went so far as to tell his readers in print that he feared being sent to jail if he wrote anything that was deemed unacceptable by the authorities about the case.
The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the best known of the pro-democracy groups in Swaziland, said the police action to deny entry to the court was ‘a brazen disregard for the rights of relatives and friends’ of the two accused men.
In a statement it said police and court authorities were aware of the huge interest in the case and the large number of people that previously attended, and as ‘an obvious act of sabotage’, chose to use the smaller court. It added that plain-clothed policemen were also placed in the court to take up as many available seats as possible.
Makhubu and Maseko are expected to appear in court again on 22 April 2014 for the start of their trial.
Prodemocracy groups from across the world have called for the immediate release of the two men. Amnesty International has named them ‘prisoners of conscience’.
Source : Swazi Media Commentary