This is an eyewitness account of the Swazi police brutality handed out to those arrested at the Swaziland Democracy Campaign meeting on Monday (6 September 2010).
Peter Kenworthy, the Communications and Project Officer at Africa Contact, Denmark, tells of beatings and death threats.
The Police entered the offices of the Foundation for Socio-economic Justice in Manzini, Swaziland at 9.20 am. Three representatives of the Danish organisation Africa Contact (myself included) were sitting peacefully drinking coffee together with two Foundation for Socio-economic Justice (FSEJ) employees.
Africa Contact was in Swaziland to monitor a project with our partners, FSEJ, and talk to various other Swazi organisations to be able to write a report to the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ten police officers charged into the office and started slapping and beating all five of us, knocking my glasses violently to the ground, throttling another, and repeatedly hitting one of the FSEJ employees. All five of us were then shouted at, questioned about our participation in a Swaziland Democracy Campaign lecture that we had been part of for perhaps five minutes yesterday at the Tums George Hotel, and taken to the Manzini District Police Head Quarters.
Upon arrival at the police headquarters, we were made to stand in a hallway where our passports, luggage and cell phones were taken. Here the policemen repeatedly terrorized and intimidated us.
I was elbowed in the stomach twice and one officer told us that we would ‘never return to your country. You will die here’.
After having stood there for a while, all five of us were taken to the yard where around 20 or so other arrestees from South African organisations, including COSATU and POPCRU, were standing. We stood here for the best part of an hour talking on and off with the officers.
Sometimes in a normal, almost friendly manner, as it seemed that these junior policemen were curious as to what made us support the democracy movement in Swaziland, but mostly they seemed threatening. First the South Africans and then our group were then put into the back of police vans. We spent the next two hours or so here. All requests for water, food, or being allowed to go to the toilet were flatly refused. ‘You can go to the toilet in Denmark,’ we were told.
We were then taken for interrogation one at a time, most of which was very frightening and intimidating, especially because there we eight officers on the other side of the table and because we were afraid of being beaten up again. They kept shouting and barking orders at us, especially if we didn’t reply immediately or if the answers were not to their satisfaction.
During the interrogations the police again threatened to kill us, ?’You will never see Denmark again,’ we were told.
All requests for us to be able to see a lawyer or to speak to our embassies were refused, and they wouldn’t tell us if we were being charged with anything or if this was the case, what these charges were.
‘This is Swaziland, this is not Denmark’, they told us, seemingly indicating that we had not rights here at all.
The questions were mostly about our project with FSEJ and we truthfully answered that this was a legal capacity building and mobilisation project that was sponsored by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They accused us of financially supporting PUDEMO (like all political parties in Swaziland, PUDEMO is illegal), which we told them we didn’t as we did not support or work with political parties.
After having been interrogated we were returned to the police van one by one and left there for another hour or so, still without having been offered any water or having been able to go to the toilet.
Our Swazi partners told us that they feared that they would almost certainly be severely beaten or tortured, something that has happened to many members of the Swazi democratic movement and other Swazi organisations, so their fear seemed well founded. That the police officers standing outside the van were talking about how they would be torturing them later on by simulated drowning was a clear indication of this.
Eventually, the three of us from Africa Contact were taken to the upstairs office where we had been interrogated and were told to check that nothing was missing from our luggage and to have our pictures taken holding a hand written sign with our names on it.
We were also made to sign statements that the police had prepared for us and were told not to return to Swaziland ever again ‘or else!’
All of a sudden the police started treating us in an almost friendly manner, however, bordering on the apologetic. We only learned later that the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, the Danish Embassy in Pretoria, and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, amongst others, had been pressurising the Swazi regime for our release.
At around 2 pm the three of us were taken to the airport in the back of a police van. We had still not been charged with anything. The two FSEJ employees were not released together with us and we were really worried, knowing that many Swazis had been tortured, and in the case of Sipho Jele probably killed, by the police.
We were therefore very relieved to hear that they had been released a couple of hours later and that they had not been beaten up or tortured during this time. Apparently the pressure that had been applied on the regime had also secured their release. This time the FSEJ employees were perhaps lucky that they were arrested together with three white Europeans. This generally tends to guarantee more of an international uproar from Western governments. Perhaps they will not be so lucky next time?
The moral of this story is twofold: Firstly, do people in the West really wish to leave people in Swaziland and other dictatorships in the hands of brutal regimes and their violent police forces whilst we more or less rhetorically call for democracy and good governance without acting upon these words?
And secondly, I have discovered that it is only through actually being treated to a tiny fraction of the rough treatment that democracy advocates experience every day in Swaziland and other African countries, and with the protection that my passport affords me, that I have truly come to understand the bravery and sacrifice of these people. Their brave and selfless actions call for our respect, yes, but most of all they call for our help!