The attack by the newspaper which is in effect owned by King Mswati III is unprecedented.
In a report headed ‘US Ambassador crosses the line’, the Observer accused James of ‘interfering in Swaziland’s internal affairs’.
The Observer reported (6 July 2014) that James had personally attended the trial of Bhekhi Makhubu and Thulani Maseko, who are accused of contempt of court after articles critical of the Swazi judiciary were published by the Nation, a small-circulation independent comment magazine.
In a report written by Welcome Dlamini, the Observer said, ‘The ambassador’s actions are viewed as interfering in Swaziland’s internal affairs yet she has to be guided by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which prevents her from such involvement.’
The newspaper also quoted James at a celebration to mark the US Independence Day on 3 July 2014.
The newspaper said, ‘At the event, she delved on the arrests of Makhubu and Maseko and blamed the judiciary for having charged the duo with contempt of court, arrested, shackled and subjected them to prolonged detention “because they dared to question the judiciary’s irregular handling of a legal case against a public servant who was arrested for executing his official duties.
“This case compels all of us to consider what are the consequences for Swaziland, or any country, if no one is allowed to question the actions of the judiciary? What other mechanism exists to keep its power in check? If the actions of the judiciary are in accordance with the law, then surely they will stand up to scrutiny. And if they are not, then they deserve to be exposed for what they really are. I would guess that most people would not want to live in a society in which sincere and earnest questions are answered with shackles and the isolation of a jail cell. The greatest countries are those which protect the rights of all citizens, even and perhaps especially, those who are critical of it.”
The Observer went on to say ‘These comments are viewed as a direct attack on the judiciary and suggesting how it should run its affairs.
‘Further, they are viewed as inciting the Swazi citizens against the judiciary.
‘Ambassador James is also viewed as having failed to follow the laid down diplomatic communication channels when she felt there was something of concern that had to be passed on to government.’
However, the newspaper failed to quote single source making these allegations, suggesting that the criticism comes directly from the newspaper itself.
A US Embassy spokesperson told the newspaper that it had received no criticisms on the Ambassador’s conduct.
The attack by the Observer comes days after the US withdrew its preferential trading status with Swaziland under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). This was as a direct result of the kingdom’s refusal to make reforms around civil, human and workers’ rights. Swaziland is ruled by King Mswati, who is sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.
It was widely reported that no representatives of the Swazi Royal Family or the Government which was handpicked by King Mswati attended the US independence celebrations, an action described by the Times of Swaziland, the kingdom’s only independent daily newspaper as ‘unprecedented’.
The US regularly draws attention to human rights failings in Swaziland. In a public statement in April 2013, the US Embassy in Swaziland said it had ‘deep concern’ about the way police engaged in ‘acts of intimidation and fear’ against people seeking their political rights.
The statement came after armed police, acting without a court order, barricaded a restaurant in Manzini to stop people attending a public meeting to discuss the national election in Swaziland.
The US embassy said it had deep concern about the manner in which representatives of political organisations and lawyers for human rights were treated by police.
The police blockade of the restaurant took place on 12 April 2013 and was intended to mark the 40th anniversary of the Royal Decree in 1973 by King Sobhuza II that tore up the constitution and allowed the king to introduce any law he wished and to change existing ones.
The decree has never been rescinded and his son, Mswati III today rules Swaziland as an absolute monarch.
The US Embassy said it was, ‘[C]oncerned that a group of people were prevented from entering a restaurant, where they had planned to hold their meeting and were forcibly removed from the premises by police’.
The statement added that the 2005 Swaziland Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
It further said Swazi security forces had a duty to protect the rights of citizens to, ‘communicate ideas and information without interference’.
This was not the first time the US Embassy in Swaziland has criticised the Swaziland ruling regime. A year earlier in April 2012 it said, ‘We urge the Swazi government to take the necessary steps to ensure the promotion and protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Swazi citizens as outlined in the Swazi constitution, including freedom of conscience, of expression, of peaceful assembly and association, and of movement.’
The statement went on, ‘The United States government is deeply concerned about increasing infringements on freedom of assembly, as evidenced by the recent actions taken by Swazi security forces to prevent peaceful citizens from gathering for a prayer meeting on Saturday, April 14 in Manzini as well as reports of those same forces preventing people from gathering in groups of more than two people in Manzini and Mbabane on April 11 and 12.’
SWAZILAND LOSES US TRADE BENEFITS