Swaziland news magazine editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko were convicted in the High Court of Swaziland of contempt of court on Thursday in the highest-profile case in the country’s history.

After passing judgment, Judge Mpendulo Simelane deferred sentencing to an unspecified later date. Makhubu and Maseko face possible prison terms of more than 10 years.

The case has generated worldwide criticism of King Mswati’s authoritative governance. “There is no absolute right to freedom of expression in Swaziland,” Judge Simelane declared in his verdict.

Makhubu and Maseko were arrested in March after writing articles critical of a ruling by Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi. Their unprocedural arrests were overturned by Judge Mumsi Dlamini in April, but the defendants were immediately re-arrested.

Judge Simelane blasted the press for assuming it can publish “anything it likes”. Present in court was Swaziland’s Minister of Justice Sibusiso Shongwe, whose appearance at the verdict signalled the State’s intense interest in the trial.

Judge Ramodibedi was personally selected by Mswati to bring the Swazi courts into line with his governing edicts. The Swaziland Law Society went on a three-month strike to protest the illegality of his appointment, citing the nation’s constitution that called for a Swazi chief justice. But Judge Ramodibedi ensured that independent-thinking judges like Thomas Musuku were purged and that press analysis of the court was stifled.

The EU and the US criticised the arrests – also condemned by Amnesty International and the political rights group Freedom House.

Makhubu and Maseko were made to appear in court shackled in leg irons. Pro-democracy groups – banned by Mswati – saw this as proof that the state wished to punish and humiliate the pair and that the trial was political.

But Judge Simelane in his ruling said Maseko had introduced politics into the proceedings by reading a lengthy statement into the court record. “I insist that I am not guilty, but the leadership of Swaziland should be in the dock for contempt of the people,” Maseko had said, citing freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela. Judge Simelane dismissed Maseko’s impassioned statement as irrelevant political theatre. But human rights groups said the trial exemplified the Mswati regime’s intolerance of dissent. - Independent Foreign Service

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