The Swaziland Government was forced into a humiliating climb down at the High Court when it could not provide evidence that the chief government vehicle inspector Bhantshana Gwebu should be held in prison pending trial on a contempt of court charge because he was a trade union member and therefore might run away to evade trail.
Gwebu had been sent to prison for seven days on remand by the Swazi Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi for contempt of court. He was accused of unlawfully detained High Court Judge Esther Ota, who was being chauffeured in an ‘authorised’ government vehicle, near Sifundzani. Gwebu believed the judge was not on official business and therefore should not have been using a government car.
The Government opposed bail at a hearing at the High Court on Wednesday (29 January 2014). The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) wanted Gwebu held in prison until his trial date because he was a member of the trade union, the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union (NAPSAWU).
The DPP claimed to the court that NAPSAWU had ‘politicised’ the case and the union would help Gwebu to evade trial. It also submitted that if released on bail Gwebu might ‘disturb the public order or undermine public peace and security’.
But, when High Court Judge Bheki Maphalala asked the prosecution to supply evidence and clarify how the case had been politicised and how NAPSAWU could assist Gwebu to evade trial, it could not. It then formally withdrew the allegations.
Local media reported Judge Maphalala saying it was the duty of the court to dispense justice to all without fear or favour.
He said the Crown submitted that Gwebu was a flight risk because he was in association with a union, NAPSAWU.
The judge noted that Gwebu surrendered to the police after a warrant of his arrest had been issued.
‘It is also common cause that the union in question is legally recognized in the country,’ he said.
He added, ‘There is further no evidence, at all, that the union has hijacked and politicised the case. The union is duty-bound to assist its members. The allegations made by the Crown are misleading.’
Advocate Norman Kades for the DPP withdrew the allegation and Judge Maphalala released Gwebu on E15,000 (US$1,500) bail. Gwebu had been in prison for nine days awaiting the bail hearing, which had been delayed because the DPP claimed it was not ready to proceed with the case.
The DPP was forced into a second climb down when the prosecution claimed that the papers for the Crown were drafted hastily as they did not have sufficient time. Judge Maphalala, however, informed him that this was not true as they had six days to prepare their papers.
The case involving Gwebu has received international attention because of the way he was charged with contempt of court by the Swazi Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi. Gwebu had been refused legal representation.
Gwebu, in his role as chief government vehicle inspector, had charged and arrested, Vusi Tsela, for driving a government vehicle without authority. Tsela is the official driver for High Court judge, Esther Ota, and, it was reported that he had taken her to one of the elite schools in Mbabane on a Saturday so that she could buy her children’s uniforms before classes resumed.
Gwebu’s case is that Tsela did not have the right papers to allow him to drive the car for that trip, so Gwebu subsequently charged him and impounded the car.
Ota said that she was on her way to court because she was the duty judge for the weekend and had just needed to run some personal errands before going to work.
It has also been reported that Gwebu once impounded Chief Justice Ramodibedi’s official car after he allegedly abused it. Observers say Ramodibedi’s actions in charging Gwebu for contempt of court this time might be ‘pay-back’ for that.
JUDGE ATTACKS SWAZI PRESS FREEDOM