SA man tries to avoid the noose in Botswana

Published Apr 21, 2001


Mariette Bosch found and left fellow South African Lehlohonolo Kobedi on death row in Gaborone's maximum security prison: he has been there for four years without much thought spared for him, and many do not know of his desperate fight for survival.

Now Kobedi has his lawyer asking whether his case has been ignored by the world's human rights activists and media because "he is black and has no money to buy the best lawyers in the world".

Bosch was executed by the Botswanan government three weeks ago amid an international outcry, but Kobedi had only Themba Joina, his lawyer, to fight his case.

This week, Joina bitterly said: "We are of the view that the foreign media were only concerned about Bosch because she is white. Since she was hanged, we don't see cameras in Botswana anymore."

When the cameras last invaded Gaborone earlier this month, Kobedi was edgy. Told that the media was there to confirm that Bosch had been hanged and were asking endless questions, he frantically started calling his lawyer.

"I think it was at that very moment he started feeling that execution was a reality. You can imagine what he went through on realising that even international pressure and threats could not save Bosch," said Joina.

And worse still, nobody was asking for him.

Kobedi has been on death row since 1997. He was convicted by the Lobatse High Court for the murder of Sergeant Kebotsetswe Goepamang. The policeman was shot dead on May 22 1993, in a shootout in the village of Palapye, in the central district.

Like Bosch, Kobedi maintains his innocence.

A judge declared four years ago that Kobedi was guilty as charged and sent him to the gallows. In 1998, he appealed, only to have his appeal thrown out.

He immediately engaged a new lawyer, Joina, who applied for a retrial. Joina was the third lawyer to handle Kobedi's case.

The application for a retrial is on the grounds that Kobedi was not afforded a lawyer of his own choice and that he was not provided with an interpreter. Kobedi is a Sotho-speaking South African. But, says Joina, the judge refused to allow Sotho translation, insisting Kobedi understood English.

"From the beginning, it was clear that Kobedi was disadvantaged. He was brought before a judge with less understanding of the fact that Sotho and Tswana are two different languages and that English is not Kobedi's mother tongue," said Joina.

Joina also alleged that the judge was biased in that the evidence that had been led was not adequately explored. He said the police investigators could not conclusively prove that Kobedi is the man who shot the policemen.

On the day the murder was committed, Kobedi was with three other friends in the vehicle involved in the shootout with the police.

"Without giving much detail, the bullet which killed the sergeant (Goepamang) could have come from any of the guns involved in the shootout. We are going to explore that angle," explained Joina.

But there is another problem. Since being engaged in the case, Joina has not been paid legal fees. Kobedi's family has no money.

The attorney-general's office in Gaborone refuses to pay Kobedi's fees, arguing that the government only covers the defendant's costs in three stages of the case - the original hearing, the appeal and the application for presidential pardon. The first two have been exhausted and Kobedi's legal team has refused to undertake the application for clemency until the retrial is heard.

"I may have to do without payment. My first priority is to get Kobedi out of death row. I don't know if he will ever pay me.

"I am just hoping human rights organisations take up Kobedi's cause and assist with legal fees," said Joina.

There may be hope.

Ditshwanelo (the Botswana Centre for Human Rights) stated this week that it had asked for financial assistance from outside organisations like the South African Human Rights Commission, the Lesotho Council of NGOs and the African Legal Aid board. These institutions are in constant contact with Kobedi's representatives in Botswana.

In the meantime, there is no immediate threat to Kobedi's life. He will have to sit tight until the court of appeal meets from August to December.

Until then "we are all praying", said Joina. "It may take longer, but I am convinced Kobedi will not meet the same fate as Bosch."

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