In Swaziland, two held on contempt of court charges

Cape Town, March 19, 2014–Authorities in Swaziland should immediately release Bheki Makhubu, editor of the independent newsmagazine The Nation, and Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer, who were imprisoned earlier this week in connection with articles published in The Nation, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Swaziland’s Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi issued an arrest warrant for Makhubu and Maseko on contempt of court charges, according to news reports. The warrant was served at Makhubu’s office on Monday, but he turned himself in to the police on Tuesday, news reports said. Maseko was arrested at his office on Monday, reports said. Both deny the charges.

The arrests were in connection with separate articles each had written that criticized Ramodibedi. In a February column for The Nation, Makhubu criticized the chief justice for contempt of court charges given to Bhantshana Gwebu, the government’s motor vehicle inspector, who was arrested after impounding a vehicle used by another high court judge, according to news reports. After a week in custody, Gwebu was released on bail. His case is pending in the high court.

Maseko wrote an opinion piece, “Mandela: lessons from a great man on leadership,” which was also published in The Nation‘s February issue, in which he criticized the state in connection with the Gwebu case. In a separate article for The Nation, he called for Swaziland’s chief justice to step down. The latter article is not cited in the charges against him.

Maseko’s lawyer, Mandla Mkhwanazi, told CPJ that Ramodibedi refused to hear the case in open court and instead saw Makhubu and Maseko in his chambers. Both were remanded into custody for seven days. Their court date is scheduled for March 25, the lawyer said.

“These arrests make a mockery of Swaziland’s constitution, which is supposed to uphold freedom of expression,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine. “We call on authorities to release Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko.”

Makhubu has previously been convicted of contempt of court. In April 2013, the Swaziland high court sentenced him to a fine of $20,000 or two years’ imprisonment in connection with stories he published in 2009 and 2010 that criticized Ramodibedi. Makhubu is appealing his sentence.

Judge Ramodibedi, who is also a judge in the Lesotho High Court, is fighting impeachment proceedings instituted by that country’s prime minister. Maseko was due to have traveled with Swaziland human rights lawyers to observe the trial, which begins next week.