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Eswatini: Leave no stone unturned in ensuring justice for Thulani Maseko’s unlawful killing

The Eswatini authorities must ensure that the unlawful killing of Thulani Maseko is promptly investigated in an effective, thorough, impartial and transparent manner, completely independent of government, Amnesty International said today.

The unlawful killing of human rights defender and lawyer Thulani Maseko highlights the increasing repression of critical voices in Eswatini.

The investigation into Thulani Maseko’s killing should be carried out by authorities independent of the government

Flavia Mwangovya, Deputy Director for East and Southern Africa

Maseko was shot by unknown gunmen at his home in Luyengo, Mbabane on 21 January. Although the motive behind his killing remains unclear, Amnesty International has reason to believe that he was attacked in relation to his work as a human rights defender. Maseko has previously been targeted by the state for demanding justice and criticizing the country’s judiciary.

“The investigation should be carried out by authorities independent of the government and any institution, agency or person who may be the subject of, or otherwise involved in, the investigation, with the final results being made public, and aimed at ensuring that justice for Maseko’s killing is not denied” said Flavia Mwangovya, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East and Southern Africa. 

The cold-blooded unlawful killing of Thulani Maseko offers a chilling reminder that human rights defenders, especially those at the forefront of calling for political reform in Eswatini, are not safe

Flavia Mwangovya

“The cold-blooded unlawful killing of Thulani Maseko offers a chilling reminder that human rights defenders, especially those at the forefront of calling for political reform in Eswatini, are not safe. If they are not being persecuted, harassed or intimidated by the state, they are at risk of losing their lives,”

“Maseko’s family deserves justice; his killers must be brought to trial.”

Prior to his death, Maseko chaired the Multi-Stakeholders Forum, a group of political parties and civil society groups calling for democratic reform in the country. Eswatini’s monarchy is strongly opposed to political reforms and activism. The day before Maseko was killed, King Mswati III reportedly said in a public address that those who are calling for democratic reform in the country would be “dealt with”.

On the evening of 21 January, Maseko was shot through the window of his home by unknown gunmen at close range. He was reportedly shot twice. A local newspaper also reported that two police officers had staked out his house before he was killed. Allegedly, those police officers were same ones who attended the crime scene after Maseko was shot.

A courageous human rights lawyer

Thulani Maseko was a courageous human rights defender, lawyer and state critic who refused to turn a blind eye to the government’s oppression of the people of Eswatini. He stood up against the state’s abuse of power, including what many see as the mismanagement of the country’s resources, and called for the authorities to prioritize developing the country.

In 2014, Maseko was sentenced to two years in prison, alongside veteran news editor Bhekithemba Makhubu, for contempt of court after publicly criticizing what they perceived as the judiciary’s lack of independence and integrity. Amnesty International had declared him a Prisoner of Conscience.

The unlawful killing of Maseko follows a spate of attacks on opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists, all of whom have been challenging the monarch and demanding political reform in the country since May 2021, including through nationwide protests. In response to the demonstrations, the government launched a brutal crackdown on human rights activism. Some politicians have been jailed merely for being suspected of joining calls for political reform.

“Thulani Maseko was a key pillar in the struggle for freedom in Eswatini. His death, which has already sent a chilling message to pro-democracy activists across the country, may signify an escalation in attacks against those who are openly seeking political reforms,” said Flavia Mwangovya.

“The Southern Africa Development Community and the Eswatini authorities must demonstrate that they are committed to protecting everybody in the country, including human rights defenders, opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists. Nobody should be attacked or threatened simply for being critical and pushing for political reforms.”