35 tortured as police brutality rears its ugly head again

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…police brutality continues even as MCC Compact II is signed 

’Marafaele Mohloboli

THE ugly monster of police brutality has reared its ugly head once again.

This time the victims are 35 Liseleng, Thaba-Tseka, villagers who were on Thursday tortured by some rogue police officers. Their only crime was that they had staged a protest against a crippling power outage which has gone on for more than a month without being attended to.

The rogue officers probably had a sense of irony and they could not have chosen a more auspicious day to commit their dastardly actions against the villagers. On the very day and at the same time they were savagely beating up the villagers, the government and United States (US) Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) officials were busy signing the long-awaited agreement to provide a US$300 million (about M4, 8 billion) grant to fund various socio-economic projects in Lesotho.

It took the two parties almost a decade to agree on the funding package as the US government had baulked at Lesotho’s failure to meet eligibility criteria including tackling human trafficking and staying the course on the multi-sector reforms recommended by SADC in 2016.

Incidentally, the eligibility criteria includes addressing persistent allegations of police brutality. Even as the agreement was being signed, US Ambassador to Lesotho, Maria Brewer, echoed her predecessor, Rebecca Gonzales, who frequently admonished the government to continue meeting eligibility criteria because any deviations would be punished by the suspension of the grant as well as the suspension of the implementation of the agreed projects.

But all this did not matter to the rogue officers who pounced on the helpless and hapless men and women from Liseleng, beating them up and forcing them to roll for several metres on the muddy ground.

The victims included 19 men and 16 women. It did not matter to the rogue officers that they included a village chief, new mothers and elderly women.  They were all made to roll on the road leading to a nearby Matsoku River and then back again.

The incident took place near the site of the Polihali Dam project  being constructed in terms of Lesotho and South Africa’s bilateral Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP II).

It happened in full view of project workers including South Africans who watched in awe and disbelief.

They even took videos of the incident which have since been splashed on social media.

In one of the videos that has since gone viral, a heavy presence of police and soldiers can be observed. Some of the police officers can be seen and heard shouting to the men and women to get down on the ground and start rolling. All the while the villagers are kicked and beaten with some sticks.

The villagers were subsequently arrested and locked up at a police holding cell in Thaba-Tseka before appearing in court on Friday.

Police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli said they had been charged with disturbing the peace in contravention of the Internal Security Act and Road Traffic Act.

They were released on free bail and will appear again in court on 24 May 2022.

Senior Supt Mopeli, however, said they did not condone police brutality against the villagers, adding investigations were underway and the rogue officers would be punished.

“Investigations are being made to establish what really happened. There is a team that’s already in place investigating the whole Liseleng saga and any police officer involved in the incident shall be taken to task over that because police are not expected to torture anyone regardless of the situation. There are acceptable means of dealing with situations other than torturing people,” Senior Supt Mopeli said.

On his part, Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) spokesperson, Captain Sakeng Lekola, said army officers only attended the scene after being called by the police to back them up.

However, they did not engage in acts of brutality against the villagers like the police did. If anything, the soldiers admonished the police against their unbecoming conduct, he said.

“Our officers were called by the police to provide backup. Upon arrival, they found the Liseleng residents being beaten up and being made to roll on the ground. Our officers stood firm against that (torture) and directed that proper means be followed to deal with the matter. They directed that the residents be taken into police custody instead of being tortured.

“The LDF has a major responsibility to protect the civilians as well as to restore peace and public order.  It would be very embarrassing for the Commander (Mojalefa Letsoela) to have some of his officers implicated in this or any crime,” Captain Lekola said in an interview.

His claims that the army did not join the police in brutalising the villagers were attested to by one of the victims who spoke to the Lesotho Times on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals this week.

“The army came in peace but the police caused mayhem,” the villager said.

“They (police) started beating us; they kicked and insulted us. They didn’t even want to hear a thing from us. They made us roll on the ground down to the river and even wanted us to get into the water but when the army came, they stopped this and protected us from further torture. The police subsequently took us to Bokong police station and kept us there for a night.

“I didn’t see anything wrong with protesting because we have every right to do so. We had gone for almost a month without electricity and no one was saying anything to us. We believe that there are better ways that could have been used other than torture.

“I had always heard about police brutality but I never imagined that I would one day be a victim. I was tortured in the presence of my daughter-in-law. It was so embarrassing for me and I felt so helpless. I don’t think I will ever feel safe around the police. Worst of all, they wanted us to incriminate ourselves and admit to violent and disorderly conduct,” the woman said.

Former cabinet minister Tlohelang Aumane has condemned the police for their brutality.

Mr Aumane is the Semena legislator under which Liseleng falls.

“This incident is quite a disgrace, especially after we have just signed the MCC Compact whose eligibility criteria includes upholding human rights. This is an utter disgrace given how the Prime Minister (Moeketsi Majoro) was waxing lyrical about how Lesotho respects the rights of its people.

“Police brutality has become rife in Lesotho and nothing is being done about it. Lesotho is also ranked high on the global list for killings but the authorities have turned a blind eye to this. It is an insult to these residents because they are paying their persecutors through their taxes.

“It is good that the incident was captured on video because that shows everyone what Lesotho is all about. We are looking at filing a lawsuit to make sure that these people get the justice they deserve.

“Some were beaten in front of their sons-in-law and some before their wives and thus disgraced. We are appealing to all human rights lawyers to come forward to help us ensure there is justice for these people,” Mr Aumane said.

The Liseleng incident is merely the latest in the ever-escalating cases of police brutality under Commissioner Holomo Molibeli’s watch.

A fortnight ago, the Lesotho Times reported that prominent human rights lawyer, Napo Mafaesa, had sued the police for M5 million for torturing him earlier this year.

Adv Mafaesa’s application comes at a time when Commissioner Molibeli is under pressure to rein in rogue officers. But the multitude of calls have apparently not moved the police commissioner.

European Union (EU) ambassador to Lesotho, Paola Amadei, is among those who had demanded that the rogue police officers be urgently investigated and brought to book for torturing Adv Mafaesa and PC Makhakhe.

Ms Amadei also demanded action against all other officers who have previously been accused of brutality against civilians in the past. She said the torturing of suspects had no place in a democratic dispensation. Ms Amadei said torture was prohibited in terms of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Lesotho was party to. Even in war situations, it was also illegal to torture prisoners of war, Ms Amadei said.

But under the Majoro government, all such calls are being ignored and human rights abuses, including killings, have become the order of the day. Nothing is also being done in parliament to try and get the government to account for its lack of action.

 

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