Swaziland’s suspended Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi is fighting hard to prevent an inquiry into his alleged abuse of power taking place.
He is using every avenue available to him to frustrate the hearing by the Swazi Judicial Service Commission (JSC).
Observers of Swaziland will not have missed the irony that Ramodibedi is claiming his constitutional rights have been violated. Ramodibedi has presided over a legal system in Swaziland where King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch and the kingdom’s constitution has been ignored on numerous occasions, often by Ramodibedi himself.
Most notable was the case of Bhekhi Makubu and Thulani Maseko, who are presently serving two year jail sentences for writing and publishing magazine articles critical of Ramodibedi in particular and the Swazi judicial system more generally.
A warrant was issued for Ramodibedi’s arrest on 17 April 2015 on charges including abuse of power. He was later suspended from office pending an inquiry into his behaviour. The start of the JSC inquiry has been postponed twice to give Ramodibedi time to prepare his defence.
In the meantime, Ramodibedi has unsuccessfully tried to get the High Court to overturn the arrest warrant. He is also trying to get members of the JSC inquiry disbarred from sitting in his case because he claims they are biased against him. He claims his constitutional rights are being violated and he will not be given ‘a fair hearing by an impartial Commission’. The Swaziland High Court is expected to hear the arguments on Monday (8 June 2015).
Ramodibedi has been in the spotlight for a number of years over the way he runs the Swazi judiciary on behalf of King Mswati who appointed him to office in violation of the Constitution: the office Chief Justice has to be a Swazi national but Ramodibedi is from Lesotho.
Many allegations of abuse of power have been made from lawyers within Swaziland and also by the international human rights community.
In May 2014, two Supreme Court judges reportedly threatened to resign if a warrant issued by Ramodibedi for the arrest of three High Court judges who were critical of him was served, Ramodibedi reportedly issued the warrants but the Swazi police did not make the arrests.
The three judges were Mumcy Dlamini, Bheki Maphalala and Mbutfo Mamba.
Reportedly, arrest warrants were issued because the CJ felt the judges were ‘ignoring his orders and bringing the High Court into disrepute’.
It was reported at the time that should the warrants be effected and the judges arrested, the CJ planned to appoint interim judges himself.
This was not an isolated incident of abuse of power. In a report on Swaziland covering the year 2011, Human Rights Watch stated, ‘Serious deficiencies in Swaziland’s judicial system persist. In an ominous precedent for the independence of the judiciary, Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi in August suspended Justice Thomas Masuku for insubordination and for insulting the king, among other charges.’
It added, ‘On August 11  Justice Masuku appeared before the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), whose six members are appointed by the king. On September 27  the king relieved Judge Masuku of his duties for “serious misbehavior.” Justice Masuku had in the past made several rulings in favor of human rights.’
In the case of Masuku, Ramodibedi acted as judge, prosecutor and witness in the case he himself brought.
David Matse, the Swaziland Minister for Justice, was fired from his job because he refused to sign the dismissal letter for Masuku.
Human Rights Watch added, ‘Control over the daily allocation of cases for hearings, including urgent ones, has been placed solely in the hands of the chief justice, creating what is perceived by lawyers as an unacceptable bias in the administration of justice. In August  the Law Society of Swaziland instituted a boycott of the courts to protest these developments and the failure of the authorities to hear its complaints regarding the running of the courts, including the chief justice’s allocation of cases. On September 21, Law Society members delivered a petition to the minister of justice calling for action to address the decisions of the chief justice and the general administration of justice in the court system.’
In August 2011, Swazi police in bullet-proof vests and armed with shotguns and tear gas canisters invaded a meeting of lawyers in the Swaziland High Court, which had been called to discuss their on-going campaign to get Ramodibedi removed from office. Reports in the Swazi media said the Chief Justice himself ordered the police to break up the meeting.
In September 2011, the Centre For Human Rights, Swaziland, reported, ‘Swaziland lawyers embarked on the court boycott after the CJ issued a series of unlawful practice directives, to all courts of the land, directing them not to admit certain cases. In one directive, the CJ instructed the Registrar that cases would only be allocated to judges by the CJ himself, and no other officer. In another practice directive, issued in June 2011, the CJ instructed the Registrar and officers of all courts in the land that cases involving the king should not be admitted. These regrettable actions of the CJ were largely viewed as interference not only with the administration of the courts, but also as a denial of the fundamental right to access justice.’
In November 2011, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) reported, ‘Lawyers have been boycotting the courts for almost four months in protest at the maladministration of justice in the country by the incumbent Chief Justice, Michael Ramodibedi. But this week, they upped the pressure on the Chief Justice by staging a mass walk-out of the Supreme Court. This left all suspects and people with civil cases with no legal representation.
‘But astonishingly, the Chief Justice ordered that all cases be heard with or without the lawyers. This, as some have already observed, is the height of injustice. The Chief Justice is also on record as praising people who represented themselves saying that they actually argue “much better than the lawyers”.
‘Subsequent to the directive to proceed without the lawyers, Ramodibedi then went another step further - banning all lawyers from setting foot in the High Court. A heavily armed police contingent has been posted in and around the High Court premises and only government lawyers and people with cases have been allowed to enter. Banned from meeting at the High Court, the lawyers opted for a very innovative strategy, using their vehicles to “march” through the capital city in protest and bringing the city to a stand-still - much to the consternation of the police.’
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