(This report covered the period January-December 1999)
The aftermath of political turbulence in 1998 dominated human rights developments.
The court martial of soldiers charged with mutiny continued, amid concerns about the independence and fairness of the proceedings. There were new reports of torture and ill-treatment, as well as harassment of human rights defenders.
Violence in late 1998 over disputed elections and arising from the intervention of South African and Botswana military forces left political tensions which continued to undermine progress in reforming political institutions.
The multi-party Interim Political Authority (IPA), established in December 1998, struggled to reach agreement on a new electoral model and a timetable for elections.
However, in December the IPA and the government signed an agreement on a new mixed electoral model, which was guaranteed by President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique on behalf of the Southern African Development Community and witnessed by representatives of intergovernmental organizations.
South African and Botswanan military forces had largely withdrawn from Lesotho by May. A small contingent remained to conduct a retraining program for the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).
During 1999 relatives of some of the soldiers killed by South African forces in September 1998 sued the Lesotho government, which had invited the South African forces into the country, for civil damages.
The court martial of LDF soldiers for the capital offence of mutiny opened in January and had not concluded by the end of 1999, when 38 soldiers remained on trial.
The military tribunal convened by the Minister of Defence, who was also Prime Minister, included five LDF officers assisted by a former Chief Justice as Judge Advocate.
Defence counsel unsuccessfully challenged the holding of the trial within the Maximum Security Prison, Maseru, where the accused were held.
However, the court martial president agreed to remove a member of the prosecution team and a court official after defence objections. Defence counsel challenged unsuccessfully in the High Court and the Court of Appeal the constitutionality of the proceedings on grounds of lack of independence and failure to provide a fair trial.
In February the Minister of Defence ordered charges against nine of the accused to be withdrawn and the prosecution withdrew charges against three others.
In January Amnesty International (AI) raised a number of concerns about the fairness of the proceedings, among them that the composition of the tribunal did not meet international standards of independence and impartiality. In his reply the Prime Minister rejected the concerns as unfounded.
In a separate case, at the end of 1999, 31 police officers remained on trial for the capital offence of high treason, as well as sedition and contravention of the 1984 Internal Security Act.
The prosecution closed its case in June and withdrew charges against Sergeant Nthabiseng Penesi. The case against a second accused was withdrawn in December. Defence lawyers unsuccessfully applied for an order dismissing the case against the remaining accused, who had been in custody since an uprising at police headquarters in February 1997.
The case was postponed until January 2000.
Charges were brought against opposition political party members, including Basotho National Party electoral candidate Thabang Nchai, and Basotholand Congress Party member Thabiso Mahase, in connection with political violence in late 1998. Trial proceedings had not concluded by the end of 1999.
Fifty of the soldiers on trial for mutiny were involved in a protest in January against inhumane conditions in the Maximum Security Prison. Their protest was suppressed by a combined Lesotho, South African and Botswanan military force.
Subsequently the court martial tribunal members visited the cells and noted problems with bedding, ventilation, light and sanitation. In February the High Court ordered improvements and by June, when a High Court judge inspected the cells, some improvements appeared to have been made.
In January AI publicly called on the authorities to improve conditions in the prison and to act on recommendations AI made after its visit to the prison in October 1998.
Human rights defenders
Two defence lawyers for the accused soldiers, Thabang Khauoe and Haae Phoofolo, informed the military tribunal in June that they had received telephoned death threats and appeared to be under surveillance.
An LDF official was reportedly investigating the allegations but no results had been reported by the end of 1999.
Journalists attempting to report the court martial proceedings also experienced harassment.
In January military police prevented a radio journalist, Candi Ramainoane, from attending the hearings. Officials later said that they had banned him because he had interviewed some of the defendants.
In a subsequent incident the Judge Advocate summoned Candi Ramainoane to apologize to the court martial for stories critical of its conduct and referred the matter to the prosecuting authorities, which had taken no action to charge him by the end of 1999.
In November Tseliso Fosa, a lawyer in Maseru, was allegedly forcibly removed from his law offices, handcuffed and kicked by police attempting to seize confidential documents. He was released from detention but faced charges of obstruction of justice.
Torture and ill-treatment
The newly established police-military Counter Crime Unit (CCU) was alleged to have tortured arrested suspects. In an incident in October, CCU members reportedly beat Teboho Lepoqo Mohale, a resident of Maseru, and tied plastic tubing over his face until he lost consciousness.
He was released uncharged two and a half days later.
In November the Lesotho High Court ordered the police to refrain from torturing or ill-treating Maqentso Neko, a 48-year-old mother of three. Subsequently, she was charged with murder and released pending trial.
She had been arrested by the police in Teyateyaneng in connection with a murder which occurred in 1993, and had allegedly been subjected to suffocation torture while handcuffed and naked. She had allegedly also been beaten by the police in 1993 when arrested and interrogated about the same murder.
No new death sentences were imposed by the courts in 1999. In September the Lesotho High Court overturned the death sentence on Nkalimeng Mothobi, who had been in custody since 1993.
He was originally one of four accused, three of whom were tried separately in 1996 and sentenced to death for the same murder. Two had their sentences reduced on appeal and the third was acquitted and released in 1997.
UN Human Rights Committee
In March AI submitted a memorandum on its concerns in Lesotho to the Human Rights Committee, which was meeting to consider the government’s report on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. NW