Johannesburg - Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu and a raft of human rights organisations have signed an open letter demanding reforms from Swaziland’s King Mswati III, denouncing arbitrary arrests and prosecutions.

“We write to express our concern about the state of freedom of expression, judicial independence, and the rule of law in the Kingdom of Swaziland,” reads the open letter, whose authenticity a Tutu spokesman confirmed on Friday.

It urged the government “to begin meaningful discussions with the growing number of citizens and independent organisations that are demanding basic freedoms and calling for democratic reform in Swaziland”.

The international group of almost 40 activists, NGOs and universities protested against recent arrests of critical journalists and opposition politicians, which “demonstrated a disregard for legal procedures and basic human rights”.

Arrest warrants had also been issued for three high court judges, claimed the letter.

The group demanded that King Mswati “order the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners detained in Swaziland”.

They also called for the removal of the kingdom’s chief judge, Michael Ramodibedi, a Lesotho citizen who was reappointed in 2012 despite a new constitution stipulating the position should be held by a Swazi.

The judge’s actions “lie at the root of the current crisis”, said the group, which included academics and law units of universities in South Africa, the US and France, as well as respected international rights organisations.

During his tenure as the nation’s most senior judge, Ramodibedi has issued an order that makes it impossible to sue King Mswati, Africa’s last absolute monarch.

Political parties have been banned since 1973 in the tiny kingdom. The hard-hitting letter adds to mounting criticism of the king and his government, which has come down hard on dissenting voices.

Last month magazine editor Bheki Makhubu was handed a suspended three-month sentence for comparing the chief justice to a high school punk.

Opposition politician Mario Masuku and activist Maxwell Dlamini of the Swaziland Youth Congress were detained after criticising the government during a May Day rally.

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko has been arrested repeatedly this year for magazine columns denouncing apparent government and court abuses.

“If left unaddressed, these recent events will result in lasting damage to your country’s standing with potential international investors and will lead to economic and political isolation,” the letter warned. - Sapa-AFP