A challenge to the legality of Swaziland’s anti-terror and sedition laws is taking place in the kingdom’s High Court.
At stake is the future of the Suppression of Terrorism Act 2008 and Sedition and Subversive Activities Act 1938.
Pro-democracy campaigners say both Acts are used to silence dissent in Swaziland where King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.
Political parties are banned from taking part in elections and groups that advocate for multi-party democracy are banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. Individual protesters have also been arrested and jailed under the Act.
The hearing in the Swaziland High Court began in September 2015, but it was adjourned because there was not enough time to hear the case fully.
Advocates against the two acts are arguing that they are unconstitutional as they infringe the right to free expression. They say the definitions of ‘terrorism’ and ‘sedition’ are too vague and can be applied at times when people have legitimate rights to speak or act.
The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), one of the international organisations including Amnesty International that are campaigning for a change in the laws, reported ‘This hearing was a consolidation of four separate cases – each of which involved criminal charges in terms of these laws which had been brought against activists who had expressed opinions against the Swazi governmental system. What characterized the activities that led to these charges was that they were all peaceful.’
The case is highlighting Mario Masuku, President of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and Maxwell Dlamini, Secretary General of PUDEMO’s youth wing, SWAYOCO. They were arrested and charged with sedition, subversion and terrorism after participating at a May Day celebration in 2014. They were accused of supporting PUDEMO, which had been banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. They were in pre-trial detention for nearly 15 months, before the Supreme Court released them on bail in July 2015.
In a report from the court on Monday (8 February 2016), SALC said lawyers for the Swazi state (the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Attorney General) argued that the law in Swaziland was based on international standards.
The case is continuing.
Both The Suppression of Terrorism Act and The Sedition and Subversive Activities Act have been criticised by global human rights groups as oppressive.
Amnesty International in April 2015 renewed its criticism of Swaziland for the ‘continued persecution of peaceful political opponents and critics’ by the King and his authorities.
The human rights organisation called for both Acts to be scrapped or drastically rewritten.
It said the Swazi authorities were using the Acts, ‘to intimidate activists, further entrench political exclusion and to restrict the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.’
In a public statement to draw attention to the ‘repression of fundamental freedoms’ in Swaziland, Amnesty said 14 people were currently charged in five separate trials.
‘Ten are charged under both laws, including Mario Masuku, Maxwell Dlamini, and Mlungisi Makhanya, the Secretary General of the opposition organization, PUDEMO, along with six other co-accuseds.
‘The authorities also initiated trial proceedings under the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act against Thulani Maseko in September 2014, on sedition charge first raised against him in 2009.’
It added, ‘The alleged offences include shouting slogans at a Workers’ Day rally, utterances made at funerals, possession of PUDEMO leaflets, wearing PUDEMO t-shirts while attending the trial of Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, or calling for a boycott of the elections held in 2013.
Amnesty said the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act violated Swaziland’s human rights obligations. It placed the onus on the accused to prove that their alleged acts, utterances or documents published were not done with ‘seditious intention’.
The Sedition and Subversive Activities Act also obliged courts to conduct proceedings in camera relating to an offence under the Act if so requested by the prosecution.
Amnesty also said the Suppression of Terrorism Act was incompatible with Swaziland’s human rights obligations because of, ‘The failure to restrict the definition of ‘terrorist act’ to the threatened or actual use of violence against civilians.
‘The failure of the definition to meet the requirements of legality, that is, accessibility, precision, applicability to counter-terrorism alone, non-discrimination and non-retroactivity.’
It added offences were, ‘defined with such over-breadth and imprecision that they place excessive restrictions on a wide range of human rights, including the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to freedom of expression.’
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