Court orders release of lawyer, editor
Johannesburg - The Swaziland Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the release from prison of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and magazine editor Bheki Makhubu who have been in custody since March 2014.
Legal rights champions hailed the decision as a victory for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Swaziland, where both principles have been questioned recently.
The Supreme Court upheld their appeal against their convictions in the High Court last year on two charges of contempt of court and their two-year prison sentences, and ordered their immediate release from prison.
The case brought Swaziland considerable negative international publicity as most legal observers considered the convictions and sentences were unjust and the result of personal animosity against the two men by now disgraced and dismissed Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.
Maseko and Makhubu were charged with contempt of court after articles they had written which were critical of Ramodibedi were published in The Nation magazine, one of Swaziland’s few independent media outlets.
Throughout their criminal trial in the High Court - which was presided over by Judge Mpendulo Simelane, who has since been charged with corruption and defeating the ends of justice - questions were raised about the fairness of the trial, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) said on Tuesday.
It said in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the State had indicated that it was not opposing the appeal as the Directorate of Public Prosecutions believed that the convictions were unsupportable and that Judge Simelane should have recused himself from the case at the start of the trial.
“We are delighted at today’s result,” said Caroline James, a freedom of expression lawyer at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, which has been supporting Makhubu and Maseko’s legal fight.
“The Crown’s concession that grave errors were made during the trial is a vindication for Maseko and Makhubu. The recognition by the prosecution and the court that the role of the prosecution is to prosecute and not persecute is extremely welcome in Swaziland where the law has been applied at the whim of individuals in the recent past,” James said.
“Today’s victory is a victory not only for Maseko and Makhubu and their families, but for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Swaziland more generally.”