Swaziland’s justice system was in a state of confusion on Thursday (10 April 2014) when magazine editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko were remanded in custody until 14 April 2014, despite having been released by the High Court only last Sunday (5 April 2014) after spending 20 days in jail.
The two men have been in and out of court over the past three weeks and it is thought they will be there again on Friday (11 April 2014) for a pre-trial conference.
Meanwhile, an appeal lodged with the Supreme Court by the Attorney-General’s Office against the release of the two men seems to have been overlooked. It was to be heard in May.
At the centre of the case are contempt of court charges that have been laid against Makhubu and Maseko after they wrote articles in the Nation magazine in Swaziland criticising the Swazi Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi. The two men had spent 20 days in jail after Ramodibedi himself issued an arrest warrant and, in a closed court, without lawyers present, had sent them to jail to await trial.
On Sunday (5 April 2014) High Court Judge Mumcy Dlamini ruled they should not have been jailed.
Makhubu and Maseko were freed, but later it transpired that no liberation warrants had been served and the pair might not have been legally released.
Then on Wednesday the two men sent their lawyers to the High Court in front of Judge Mpendulo Simelane in an attempt to get him to stand down from hearing the contempt case against them. This was because Simelane was one of the judge’s criticised in the articles.
Judge Simelane then issued warrants for the re-arrest of Makhubu and Maseko because they had not appeared in his court. This was even though they had been released from jail and an appeal against this had yet to be heard. Their lawyers argued this meant there was no compulsion for the men to appear.
Later in the day they were apprehended and jailed.
On Thursday they appeared in a courtroom packed with supporters. After legal arguments that the arrest warrants for the two men were not legal, because Judge Simelane acted beyond his powers, Judge Simelane himself ruled the warrants were lawful and remanded the two men to jail.
There is now also confusion about the status of the Supreme Court appeal. It appears that High Court Judge Simelane has pre-empted that appeal and in effect decided himself that High Court Judge Dlamini was wrong in her judgment last Sunday.
Judge Simelane has been subjected to some criticism since his appointment by Chief Justice Ramodibedi to the High Court in February 2014. The Sunday Observer, a newspaper in Swaziland in effect owned by King Mswati III, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, said Simelane lacked the necessary experience.
On Thursday the Law Society of Swaziland said it had tried to register an application challenging the appointment of Simelane as a judge of the High Court, but the Registrar of the High Court was refusing to accept it due to pressure from Ramodibedi.