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Mbabane - After three weeks hiding out in a Swazi government-owned mansion to evade arrest on corruption charges, Lesotho magistrate Michael Ramodibedi has been fired by King Mswati as chief justice.

For the first time, a Swazi, Bheki Maphalala, was sworn in as new chief justice and assumed his duties on Friday.

King Mswati has previously ignored the Swazi constitution that states that only Swazis may be appointed chief justice

, and has preferred foreigners for the job.

“The king did, however, choose to follow the constitution when he invoked Section 158 that allows a superior court judge to be removed for serious misbehaviour or inability to perform his office functions due to infirmity of body and mind,” said a legal source in Mbabane.

Ramodibedi’s state of mind after 22 days confined indoors after years as one of Swaziland’s most powerful figures is a matter of great speculation in Mbabane.

In press reports, he has stated his fear that the police will harm him should he open his door to them. Police Commissioner Isaac Magagula at a press conference vehemently denied any intention to injure Ramodibedi, and expressed concern that the magistrate kept two firearms in the house.

Ramodibedi is wanted on 23 counts, including abuse of power.

His close associate on the bench, Judge Mpendulo Simelane, whom police arrested on corruption charges two weeks ago, was also fired by Mswati.

Ramodibedi and Simelane have been indicted in a scheme to defraud the Swaziland Revenue Authority (SRA) by handing down a judgment that they did not owe taxes.

A delegation from Lesotho arrived last week to be briefed by the government on Ramodibedi’s situation.

After their departure, police still took no action to arrest the fugitive judge.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini said the arrest warrant has been temporarily set aside pending further investigations, and Ramodibedi was free to travel within Swaziland.

Informed sources say that the government hopes that Ramodibedi, whose usefulness they feel is at an end, will leave the country.

Another foreign national who once faced arrest for insurance fraud, a former director of public prosecutions from Ghana, fled the country unhindered by police. He was never pursued.

At a press conference, Dlamini said that no special measures were in place to inhibit Ramodibedi should he choose to cross the border, but he expressed hope that Swazis would keep an eye on him.

Swazi political blogger Richard Rooney posted this week: “Many find it hard to imagine that Ramodibedi, a personal appointee of the King, will be allowed to be tried in a court of law.

“The main charges against him are abuse of power, but international observers will note that the alleged abuses were made on behalf of and for the benefit of the King.”

Independent Foreign Service