INTERNATIONAL human rights body, Amnesty International, says the government’s delay in trying the suspects in the attempted murder of the Lesotho Times editor Lloyd Mutungamiri is “an affront to press freedom” which can only serve to entrench the “culture of impunity” in the country.
The trial of the suspects, who are all army officers, has been postponed on several occasions largely as a result of an application by one of the accused, Colonel Khutlang Mochesane, for Senior Resident Magistrate Phethise Motanyane to recuse himself from the case.
Col Mochesane argued that Mr Motanyane could not be relied on to be impartial because he (Col Mochesane) investigated a case in which Mr Motanyane clashed with another magistrate who had accused him of playing political songs that “irritated her”.
The frequent postponements of the trial have not gone down well with Amnesty International whose Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa, Muleya Mwananyanda, recently said the delay is “an afront to press freedom”.
“The Lesotho government’s delay in bringing Lloyd Mutungamiri’s attackers to justice, through a fair, independent and impartial trial, is an affront to press freedom,” Mr Mwananyanda said.
“The trial of the military members suspected of trying to kill him (Mr Mutungamiri) should send a clear message that targeting journalists is not tolerated in Lesotho but there has still been no trial and a culture of impunity prevails,” Mr Mwananyanda further said in the recent statement.
Mr Mutungamiri suffered near-fatal gunshot wounds in a July 2016 attack allegedly by the five army officers.
The five army officers are Brigadier Rapele Mphaki (47), Colonel Khutlang Mochesane (57), Mahanyane Phusumane (37), Nyatso Tšoeunyane (41) and Maribe Nathane (35).
Mr Mutungamiri’s shooting followed a rough week for the Lesotho Times during which journalist Keiso Mohloboli was also summoned for interrogation by police and military officials in connection with a story about the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).
The story was about the negotiations for an exit package for the then army commander, Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli, in line with a Southern African Development Community (SADC) recommendation for his removal from post.
The Lesotho Times’ publisher and chief executive officer, Basildon Peta, was also charged with criminal defamation arising from a complaint laid against the newspaper by Lt-Gen Kamoli over the satirical column, Scrutator.
Two days after Mr Peta appeared in court, Mr Mutungamiri was shot. One bullet broke two of his right-hand fingers and another shattered his lower jaw, requiring him to undergo specialised dental surgery to manage the jaw and to remove a bullet that lodged behind his left ear. He also sustained eye injuries after broken window glasses entered and cut his eyes, among other facial injuries.
The Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) said that its investigations revealed that the attempted assassination of Mr Mutungamiri was an operation authorised by the army.
It had been anticipated that the long-awaited trial would finally kick off on 15 March this year when the five suspects appeared before Magistrate Motanyane but on that day their lawyer, Advocate Kabelo Letuka, immediately informed the court that they intended to formally apply for the senior resident magistrate to recuse himself from the case.
One of the accused soldiers, Col Mochesane, on 23 April 2018, filed an application before the Magistrate’s Court seeking the recusal of Mr Motanyane on the grounds that the magistrate would not be impartial in adjudicating over the case.
Col Mochesane suggested in his affidavit that Mr Motanyane could not be relied on to be impartial in the trial because he (Col Mochesane) investigated a case in which Mr Motanyane clashed with another magistrate who had accused him of playing political songs that “irritated her”.
Col Mochesane said he learnt of the allegations against Mr Motanyane when he (Col Mochesane) was still attached to the Military Intelligence (MI) department of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).
Mr Motanyane recused himself from the case on 22 June this year and the case is yet to be allocated to another magistrate.
According to Mr Mwananyanda, “the fact that Lloyd Mutungamiri’s case is still open with no clear dates set to resolve it in court means that he is denied the chance for closure”.
“After two long years, Lloyd and his family deserve justice now,” Mr Mwananyanda added.