MASERU — A rogue army officer Lehloa Ramotšo is set to appear before a court martial this month to answer charges of ill-treating civilians during post-election disturbances in 2007.
The court martial is however set to open a can of worms for the army which had until now rejected charges that it spearheaded the attacks on civilians.
Scores of Basotho could lay criminal charges against the soldiers who went on the rampage in June 2007 following political disturbances in Lesotho.
Five junior army officers are set to testify against Ramotšo when the case kicks off at the Makoanyane military base on March 31 and April 1.
The five are expected to tell the court martial the roles they played in the crackdown against civilians.
Ramotšo is facing charges of ill-treating civilians during a notorious army crackdown against civilians code-named Operation Pitika (roll).
Soldiers assaulted civilians who were caught walking in the streets of Maseru in breach of a 7pm to 6am curfew.
Those who were caught violating the curfew were asked to roll in the mud.
The soldiers also sexually molested women touching their private parts while allegedly searching for weapons of war.
The operation was also enforced in private homes in Motimposo where some people claimed they were beaten by men in military uniform who had covered their heads with balaclavas.
In one incident, a senior police officer, Assistant Commissioner Dlamini Mphatšoane, escaped death by a whisker when one of the men in military uniform shot him on the leg.
Mphatšoane spent weeks in hospital in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Over the past three and a half years, the LDF had consistently refused to disclose the names of soldiers who were involved in the infamous operation.
Their names are likely to be divulged at the trial later this month.
The army and the government had in the past refused to acknowledge that the rogue soldiers were members of the LDF and the police.
The official statement from both the army and the government was that they were rebels who wore the LDF and the police uniforms and tortured people at night.
It was therefore not easy for the people to press any criminal charges against the LDF soldiers because they did not know who ill-treated them.
The people could also not sue the army because they had been given an impression that the perpetrators of crimes were not LDF members.
Ramotšo’s trial is expected give the affected civilians legal ammunition to press criminal charges against the soldiers and the army for damages.
Two of the five prosecution witnesses, according to court papers seen by the Lesotho Times, are expected to tell the court that Ramotšo ordered them to ask civilians to roll on the ground at night near Lakeside Hotel on June 17, 2007.
They are also expected to testify that another soldier ordered them to search women in their private parts.
Two other prosecution witnesses are expected to tell the court how Ramotšo ordered them to order civilians to frog jump and roll on the ground for breaking the curfew rules.
Haae Phoofolo, who is representing Ramotšo, told the Lesotho Times that claiming that they were obeying lawful orders will not be enough for the five to secure immunity from prosecution.
Phoofolo said Justice Brendan Peter Cullinan who presided over the court martial following the 1998 mutiny in the LDF ruled that soldiers who committed crimes while following orders from their bosses were still guilty.
“Those soldiers were found guilty and convicted despite that they were carrying out instructions when they committed crimes,” Phoofolo said.
“It is a well established law that acting on instructions to commit crime does not make a person immune from criminal charges.”
Another lawyer, Letuka Molati, said chances were high that the soldiers will face criminal charges.
Quoting from the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act 1981 Molati said the prosecution is not barred from pressing charges until 20 years have passed since the committal of the crimes.
“The right of prosecution for any other offence except murder shall, unless some other period is expressly provided by law, be barred by the lapse of 20 years from the time when the offence was committed,” Molati said.
The Lesotho Times understands that the LDF legal division did not warn the prosecution witnesses of the consequences of implicating themselves in their evidence.
The LDF spokesperson, Matheanzima Taneso, said the question of consequences will be determined by the court.
“There was no need to concern themselves about that issue because it will be dealt with by the court in due time,” Taneso said.
“We need not talk much about this case because it is sub judice, lest we influence its outcome.”