Swaziland: Deplorable sentences against journalist and lawyer stifle free speech

The sentencing of a newspaper editor and a human rights lawyer to two years in prison on charges of contempt of court after a grossly unfair trial in Swaziland is an outrageous attempt to silence dissenting voices, said Amnesty International.

“With this sentence, Swaziland is sending the message that raising any concerns about judicial independence is out of bounds. It is a deplorable attack on freedom of expression in the country,” said Deprose Muchena, Regional Director for Southern Africa at Amnesty International.

Bhekithemba Makhubu, editor of Swaziland’s monthly news magazine, The Nation, and human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko, were today sentenced to two years in prison without the possibility of paying a fine instead.

The sentences were backdated to March 2014 when the men were arrested and detained under orders of the Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi. The Nation magazine together with its publishers were fined R100,000 (approximately USD 9,500).

The contempt of court charges arose from two articles published in The Nation magazine in February 2014 in which the convicted men had raised concerns about judicial independence and integrity in Swaziland.

Both men, whom Amnesty International regard as prisoners of conscience,  were arrested in March under defective warrants, denied access to their lawyers and remanded in custody after summary proceedings behind closed doors.

During the trial, there was a clear conflict of interest as the presiding judge had been named in one of the articles. Also, prior to the judgment being handed down in court, the Minister of Justice reportedly had a meeting with the judge in his chambers.

“It is appalling that such a blatant conflict of interest was ignored and that the trial was allowed to continue. This was clearly a politically motivated trial which contravened both domestic legal processes and international human rights standards,” said Deprose Muchena.

“We consider Bhekithemba Makhubu and Thulani Maseko to be prisoners of conscience, arrested and detained merely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The authorities in Swaziland must release them immediately and unconditionally.”