Mahaos request Special Commonwealth Tribunal

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Herbert Moyo and Tsitsi Matope

THE family of slain former army commander, Lt-Gen Maaparankoe Mahao, has written to the government, urging it to appoint a “special tribunal” of international judges drawn from Commonwealth of Nations countries to preside over his murder case and “other similar crimes committed by or involving members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF)”.

The family says the international judges are needed due to the fact that the case has attracted international attention and also because the huge backlog of criminal cases that the country’s judiciary is sitting on makes it unlikely that the case would be expeditiously dealt with.

Lt-Gen Mahao was fatally shot by his erstwhile LDF colleagues on 25 June 2015 just outside Maseru. The LDF claimed Lt-Gen Mahao had resisted arrest for allegedly leading a mutiny when he was killed.

However, Lt-Gen Mahao’s family accused the army of killing him in cold blood basing on the account of his nephews who were with him during the incident.

Lt-Gen Mahao was appointed as LDF commander on 29 August 2014 after Prime Minister Thomas Thabane fired Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli for alleged insubordination. However, Lt-Gen Kamoli rejected the dismissal challenging its legitimacy.

The Late Maaparankoe Mahao

After Dr Thabane relinquished power in the wake of the 28 February 2015 snap elections, the seven-party coalition government led by Pakalitha Mosisili reinstated Lt-Gen Kamoli, arguing that his dismissal and Lt-Gen Mahao’s promotion were illegal.

Lt Gen Kamoli was reinstated in a Government Gazette dated 21 May 2015 with another gazette issued on the same day terminating Lt-Gen Mahao’s appointment as LDF commander and reverting him to a brigadier.

Lt-Gen Mahao challenged his demotion in the High Court with the case not seeing the light of day after he was killed on 25 June 2015 by his LDF colleagues.

After two years without any movement on the case, the eight soldiers were arrested and first appeared before the Magistrates’ Court early last month. They have been attending remand hearings before the same court every two weeks.

The eight army officers are Captain Litekanyo Nyakane, Captain Haleo Makara, Sergeant Lekhooa Moepi, Sergeant Motsamai Fako, Corporal Marasi ‘Moleli, Corporal Motšoane Machai, Corporal Mohlalefi Seitlheko and Corporal Tšitso Ramoholi.

And last week, the Mahao family wrote to Justice Minister, ‘Mahali Phamotse, requesting the appointment of the “special tribunal,” saying this was “critical to ensuring fairness” as well as “ensuring cases are disposed of expeditiously in the interest of the accused”.

“Your Honour would be aware that eight members of the LDF have been arraigned before the courts of law on charges of the murder of Lt-Gen Mahao and parallel to that there are several cases involving members of the LDF with which the courts of law are or will be seized with in the weeks and months ahead,” states part of the letter which was seen by the Lesotho Times.

The letter, which is dated 4 January 2018, was also copied to Prime Minister, Thomas Thabane and Law Minister, Lebohang Hlaele.

“All these cases fall within the ambit of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) directive to Lesotho to pursue serious violation of human rights with the view to uphold the rule of law.

“The death of Lt-Gen Mahao has attracted not only a huge public interest here at home but also internationally. In the same vein the criminal case against those suspected of assassinating him will train the eyes of the world on the capacity, efficiency and fitness for purpose of the criminal justice system in Lesotho.

“Mindful of the well-known backlog of cases already weighing on the judges of the High Court of Lesotho and further alert to the sensitivity of these cases in light of the deep polarisation of Basotho society, we make a special appeal through your good offices to the government to consider the appointment of a special tribunal to try the accused.”

The letter resonates with the findings of SADC contained in a November 2017 confidential report that there were “residual tensions and deep rooted mistrust amongst politicians and divisions among the security establishments specifically (in) the LDF.”

The report was issued in the aftermath of the 5 September 2017 assassination of army commander, Lieutenant General Khoantle Motšomotšo, by his subordinates, Brigadier Bulane Sechele and Colonel Tefo Hashatsi.

The Mahaos’ observation on the backlog on criminal cases follows recent revelations by Justice and Correctional Service Minister, ‘Mahali Phamotse that Lesotho’s justice system is struggling to process a backlog of over 3000 cases.

Dr Phamotse yesterday confirmed she had received the letter from the Mahao family and her ministry will take appropriate action.

She said the government understood the family’s concerns and the need for a special tribunal comprising of foreign judges.

“Although this is a deviation from the norm, they are within their rights to request a process they can trust to provide transparent outcomes,” Dr Phamotse said.

However, she said the process of bringing foreign judges might take a long time as the government of Lesotho does not have an arrangement with the Commonwealth for them to provide support in legal matters.

She further explained that her office would formally engage the ministers of Foreign Affairs and Finance to discuss the feasibility of the process.

“There are also a number of factors we will have to consider, including the financial implications and the local legal processes that are currently underway.

“We cannot stop the case in the local courts to wait for the external judges because that could mean that we would have to release the accused persons who are in custody and then proceed when the external judges are here. We are not sure how long we will have to wait,” Dr Phamotse said.

She further explained that the need to have cases before the courts finalised expeditiously was also affecting many other people, hence the need to ensure the recruitment of more magistrates and judges to deliver justice within a reasonable timeframe.

“Since last year, we have been making efforts to have external judges and magistrates to help us finalise thousands of cases that are pending in our courts. We requested the European Union to support us with judges but we have already received a negative response.”

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