COURT Martial Judge, Advocate Justice Mathanzima Maqutu, has blasted senior army officer, Major Pitso Ramoepana, for contemptuous behaviour after the latter delayed the resumption of his mutiny trial allegedly because he was broke and had run out of funds to pay his legal fees.
The case was eventually postponed to next month by Court Martial President Brigadier Mabote Sekoboto. It was postponed to a date that is still to be decided to allow Major Ramoepana to find another lawyer.
Major Ramoepana is one of three soldiers facing mutiny charges in relation to the events that led to the 5 September 2017 assassination of army commander, Lieutenant General Khoantle Motšomotšo.
The other soldiers are Captains Boiketsiso Fonane and Litekanyo Nyakane. The trio stand accused of mutiny in relation to the events that led to the assassination of Lt-Gen Motšomotšo at his Ratjomose Barracks offices in Maseru.
Two senior army officers, Brigadier Bulane Sechele and Colonel Tefo Hashatsi were also killed during the incident.
Last Thursday, Major Ramoepana stunned the Court Martial and drew the ire of presiding judge Justice Maqutu when asked for the postponement of the case to allow him time to save up and clear arrears in legal fees which had caused his lawyer, Adv Karabo Mohau King’s Counsel to abandon him.
“I learned that due to my failure to pay my lawyer, he has resolved to abandon the proceedings until I have paid him,” Major Ramoepana said.
“I am currently broke so I ask the honourable court to give me time to save money so that I can be able to continue paying my lawyer’s fees.”
Justice Maqutu did not take kindly to Major Ramoepana’s statement, saying the latter’s lawyer had acted in contempt of court and “the lawyer should have come and explained himself to the court”.
“This is not the first incident in which an accused runs out of funds to pay legal fees but what is disgracing is a lawyer not showing face while we have been waiting for him since Monday. That is an insult to the court. He (Adv Mohau) should have come and explained to the court about his withdrawal as there are other accused people who are ready to proceed with their lawyers,” Justice Maqutu said.
One of the prosecution’s lawyers, Advocate Koili Ndebele, also weighed in on the saga, accusing Major Ramoepana of deliberately frustrating proceedings with false claims about the parlous state of his finances.
Adv Ndebele said it could not have been true that Major Ramoepana was broke as he was pursuing other cases in the High Court.
“We do not believe the first accused is genuine when he says he cannot afford to pay his lawyer. We believe he is engaged in a game of wasting time to ensure the proceedings do not continue. It is the accused who prematurely approached the High Court for review of these proceedings and as a result this court was suspended until he lost the case after some months.
“On 7 August 2019 while he was aware of these proceedings, he approached the High Court for a stay of the execution of the ruling in the case he lost. However, two days later he withdrew the case. On Monday as we were here waiting for his lawyer, we learned that he was busy at the High Court moving another application which is also aimed at frustrating these proceedings.
“Where did he get money to pay lawyer to move two applications in the space of five days before the High Court and then come here and claim he has no money to pay the lawyer for this proceedings? The no show of his lawyer should not be attributed to the lack of funds but to efforts to frustrate these proceedings. This court cannot be held hostage by the accused and his lawyer,” Adv Ndebele said.
Capt Fonane’s lawyer, Advocate Letuka Molati, attended the court proceedings. The court was also told that Capt Nyakane’s lawyer, Advocate Motiea Teele King’s Counsel, would be present when it was time for his client to take the stand.
However, this was not to be as Justice Maqutu postponed the proceedings to next month to allow Major Ramoepana to find another lawyer.
“The court will adjourn for a month to allow accused number one to find another lawyer and a new date for the proceedings will be set thereafter,” Court Martial President Brigadier Sekoboto said.
In the High Court applications which Adv Ndebele was referring to, Major Ramoepane wants the High Court to order the Court Martial to stop prosecuting him.
Major Ramoepana is also facing charges in the High Court of murdering Lt-Gen Motšomotšo. He is part of a group of soldiers, including former army commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, who have filed an application in the High Court seeking an order to compel the state to assume responsibility for paying their legal fees.
Zimbabwean judge Justice Charles Hungwe, who will hear the application, has already said that it highly unusual for suspects to find their own lawyers and thereafter approach the state to pay their legal costs. To the best of his knowledge, the judge said, the state only paid legal fees for suspects who had state-appointed lawyers.