- as judges slam Thabane, police for “state-sponsored violence”
- As High Court and Court of Appeal award massive M500k damages to victims of police brutality
THE government’s repeated failure to rein in rogue police officers has come back to bite it in a big way. This after the High Court and Court of Appeal awarded a combined M500 000 to two victims of torture as well as unlawful arrest and detention by the police.
There are high chances that the police and the state could pay even bigger compensation amounts for ignoring several warnings by the opposition, local civic organisations as well as the African Union (AU), SADC, European Union (EU) and the United States to urgently deal with the scourge police brutality. This because are several other pending lawsuits that have been filed in the courts by victims of police brutality.
Besides awarding M400 090 damages- the biggest single award to a torture victim in recent years- High Court Judge Sakoane Sakoane also lambasted former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane for his reckless utterances while in office inciting police to torture civilians and engage in other gross human rights violations.
In the most damning indictment of a sitting prime minister, Justice Sakoane said through his reckless utterances, Mr Thabane had incited the police and other security agencies to subject civilians to “state-sponsored violence” in violation of constitutional provisions guaranteeing their freedom from cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.
Justice Sakoane delivered the blistering attack on Mr Thabane in his 4 November 2020 judgement awarding a whooping M400 090 in damages to a Mafeteng man, Tšolo Tjela, who was tortured by the police in 2016.
Justice Sakoane’s hard-hitting judgement came on the heels of an equally damning 30 October 2020 Court of Appeal indictment on the police and state for violating the rights of citizens.
The apex court awarded M100 000 damages to Maseru Taxi Operators (MRTO) chairperson, Mokete Jonas, for his unlawful arrest and detention by the police in August 2011.
Delivering the apex court verdict, Zambian Judge Phillip Musonda said the courts had an obligation to rescue citizens from the police who had turned into “instruments of oppression”.
The M400 090 award is a massive victory for Mr Tjela, a 51-year-old farmer, and chairperson of the Ha Likhotolo Village Crime Prevention Committee in Mafeteng.
He filed his High Court application in 2016. He claimed damages for torture “inflicted on my person by members of the police service”.
Justice Sakoane heard the application on 18 August and 16 September 2020 and delivered judgement last Thursday.
“The plaintiff is awarded the amount of damages as follows: M90 for medical expenses, M300 000 for pain, shock and suffering and M100 000 for contumelia.
“There will be interest at the rate of 12 percent per annum calculated from the date of issue of summons,” Justice Sakoane ordered.
The judge reserved his venom for Mr Thabane who he castigated for incendiary remarks which facilitated “state-sponsored violence” against Mr Tjela and other ordinary civilians.
On several occasions during his two stints as premier (first from 2012 to 2015 and again from 2017 to 2020), Mr Thabane made public statements which were viewed as giving the police a blank cheque to torture suspects.
In one such statement in parliament in April 2019, Mr Thabane said, “in my time as a Minister of Police, I told the Commissioner of Police and other officers to look around and see if there are people watching them and if not, they should beat up suspects.
“I told them that while in the full view of the people, they should be friendly to suspects, walk around with them and chat with them. I told them that when they were at a bar, they should also give the suspects alcohol so that people can see that they are being nice to the suspects but as soon as they are away from the prying eyes, they remind them what they have done”.
Justice Sakoane referenced this particular statement in his judgement, saying such utterances had opened the floodgates of police brutality and impunity against citizens like Mr Tjela.
“Despite what the constitution commands in uncompromising language in section 8 that there shall be no torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, the police service continues to brutalise citizens because it is cursed by words of a Prime Minister (Mr Thabane) who, to paraphrase him, says to them, ‘beat them hard but not in public view. When you emerge in public view, smile with them don’t beat them,” Justice Sakoane said.
“It is utterances like these by the head of the executive which help let loose police officers on this defenceless nation all in the name of crime prevention. This case is a living example of the bitter results of a lethal toxic cocktail of unprincipled, populist, demagogic and whistle-dog politics of crime control through state-sponsored violence.
“It matters not how popular a ruler or politician is nor how powerful be the military arsenal and awesome police power under the ruler’s command. The constitution is the boss,” Justice Sakoane added.
Four days before Justice Sakoane’s verdict, the Court of Appeal had also awarded M100 000 damages and spoken strongly against police brutality saying it was a violation of human rights.
This was in the case of prominent taxi operator, Mr Jonas, who alleged that he had been unlawfully arrested and detained by police officers.
He was arrested and detained on 17 August 2011 for unspecified reasons. He was released the following day and he later sued the police for M1 million as compensation for unlawful arrest and detention.
On 4 June 2019, the now retired High Court Judge Semapo Peete ordered that he be paid M60 000. Not satisfied with the order, Mr Jonas approached the Court of Appeal on 16 July 2019 for an upward review of the damages.
He was subsequently awarded M100 000 by the apex court on 30 October 2020.
Delivering the verdict on that day, Justice Musonda said, “a message of censure must be sent to men in uniform (police) that the courts will not condone unjustified arrests and detentions of citizens”.
“When the police service becomes an instrument of oppression, the rule of law and civil liberties are in peril.
“The judiciary remains the only hope to enforce human rights. The judiciary should send a strong message of censure of police brutality. This court has taken into account the conduct of the police.
“A global figure of M100 000 for unlawful arrest and detention and injuria is awarded (to Mr Jonas),” Justice Musonda ordered.
Commenting on the High Court and Court of Appeal verdicts, Lesotho Police Staff Association (LEPOSA) spokesperson, Police Constable Motlatsi Mofokeng, this week condemned police brutality and called on Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli “to take action against rogue police officers”.
Commissioner Molibeli refused to comment on the court verdicts and referred all questions to police spokesperson Mpiti Mopeli. Superintendent Mopeli said he would only comment after being served with the judgements.
Police and Public Safety Minister ‘Mamoipone Senauoane also refused to comment on the issue, claiming she was “not aware of any court judgements which order the police to compensate tortured suspects”.
“If only you could furnish me with such judgements,” Ms Senauoane told this reporter.
There are high chances that the police and the state could pay more and even bigger compensation amounts as there are several other pending lawsuits filed by victims of police brutality.
Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase’s family is among those who have a pending lawsuit against the police for the alleged torture of the judge’s son, Teboho Mahase.
Teboho was allegedly tortured in December 2017 when he and his father, Thabiso Mahase, were arrested and detained at the Mafeteng Police Station in connection with the theft of M3 million worth of pensioners’ allowances in Mafeteng earlier in 2017.
The criminal case against the Mahases for the alleged theft is pending.
Ruling Movement for Economic Change (MEC) legislator, Thabo Ramatla, has also sued Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli, Assistant Commissioner (ACP) Beleme Lebajoa and two members of the Police Special Investigation Unit for M2 million damages for the torture he was allegedly subjected to by the police in May 2019.
In the court application filed on his behalf by Advocate Zwelakhe Mda on 13 July 2019, Mr Ramatla, who was then an opposition MP, alleges that Inspectors Chabalala, Nkeane and two other officers tortured him on the night of 7 May 2019 after arresting him at his home in Mafeteng. He does not say why he was arrested by the police. Inspectors Chabalala and Nkeane’s first names are not stated in the court papers.
Inspectors Chabalala, Nkeane and the other unidentified officers are members of the Police Special Investigation Unit which is headed by ACP Lebajoa. Inspectors Chabalala, Nkeane, ACP Lebajoa, Commissioner Molibeli and the Attorney General cited as 1st to 5th defendants respectively in the lawsuit which is pending before the High Court.
In August 2019, an elderly Mafeteng man, also sued the police for M270 000 for “emotional pain and suffering” and “loss of earnings” stemming from the death of his son in police custody.
Seventy-one-year-old Motsoena Monare alleges that he has suffered a lot since the death of his son, Moepa Monare, in police custody in 2013.
His damages claim is broken down as follows: M100 000 for emotional pain and suffering, M100 000 for loss of earnings, M50 000 for burial expenses and M20 000 for legal fees.
The lawsuit was heard last year by High Court Judge Tšeliso Monapathi and the verdict is pending.
Lesotho’s human rights record and in particular the issue of police brutality has been under local and international spotlight in recent years. Two years ago, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) produced a damning report expressing concern over the “persistent allegations of police brutality” in Lesotho. Its plea to the government to capacitate the relevant institutions to enable them to investigate allegations of human rights violations has so far fallen on deaf ears.
Attorney General Advocate Haae Phoofolo in on record saying the government was “against the inhumane and degrading treatment which some of the suspects are subjected to while being investigated by police”.
Even LEPOSA has accused Commissioner Molibeli of failing to deal decisively with the issue of police brutality. The militant police union has even petitioned Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro to fire him over this and several other issues.
The United States government has also warned that it could freeze development assistance to Lesotho if the government does not rein in rogue police officers and deal with police brutality.