Date set for ex-premier Thabane’s murder trial

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Mohalenyane Phakela

FORMER Prime Minister and current All Basotho Convention (ABC) leader, Thomas Thabane, will finally stand trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Lipolelo, in March next year.

Mr Thabane (82) is accused of plotting the June 14 2017 murder of his ex-wife to pave way for his marriage to his current third wife, ‘Maesaiah (43).  ‘Maesaiah has already been charged for the murder and is currently on M10 000 bail.  The ex-premier will be joined to her trial from 8 to 10 March 2022. This detail was outlined to the Thabanes during their pre-trial interview at the High Court in Maseru this week.  The pre-trial interview was conducted by Assistant High Court Registrar, Tebello Mokhoema, on Tuesday.  A pre-trial interview is a preliminary step meant to prepare the groundwork towards the actual trial.  Its aim is to ensure that any hurdles towards the trial are cleared.

Mr Thabane has nonetheless not been officially charged. He was told he would be charged and asked to plead when the trial opens on 8 March 2022.

The Thabanes will both appear before Justice Molefi Makara.

There had been confusion about why Mr Thabane was not formally arraigned before a judge in the High Court and remanded in custody pending a formal bail application as is the routine procedure in all murder cases.

However, the Acting Registrar of the High Court and Court of Appeal, Lesitsi Mokeke, told the Lesotho Times yesterday that the pre-trial interview was a standard procedure afforded every person facing criminal charges before the High Court. It is meant to ensure that the accused person is ready to stand trial on the date set.

“When criminal cases are filed in the High Court, they come in the form of an indictment from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), which is the one that prosecutes all criminal matters,” Advocate Mokeke said.

“As the registrar’s office, it is our duty to prepare for a case by doing away with all the preliminary issues to ensure that when the day of the trial arrives, there will not be any hiccups such as the accused person only informing the court that he or she does not have a lawyer on the date of trial.

“To avoid all that, we issue a notice of trial to the accused person appearing on the indictment and then call the accused person for a pre-trial interview. This is done irrespective of whether a person is in remand custody, out on bail or is going to be charged summarily before the High Court.”

At the pre-trial interview, the accused person is informed of the charges while the court finds out if the accused has legal representation. The accused and his or her lawyer are also notified of the trial date while the state records the accused person’s place of residency and next of kin.

“It should be clear that this is a standard procedure afforded every accused person in the High Court. Even yesterday (Tuesday) it was not only Mr Thabane and his wife who had come for the interview, there were other accused persons as well. Their interview was conducted in the boardroom to accommodate the media which had an interest in covering the matter. Normally, it is a brief process conducted in an office of any of the registrars seized with the exercise.”

He said the accused person would only be asked to plead on the first day of the trial after the charges have been formally read to him or her in court. The rest of the processes in the trial then follow at the behest of either the prosecution or defence.

Mr Thabane will therefore be charged for the first time on 8 March 2022.

Under normal circumstances, after a murder accused person is charged, they are remanded in custody and then they will have to apply for bail and it is likely that Mr Thabane will also follow the same route.

‘Maesaiah, on the other hand, has already gone through that process and is currently out on bail. She will proceed with the trial out of custody unless her bail is revoked.

According to the charge sheet read out by Advocate Mokhoema on Tuesday, the former first couple is accused in the murder alongside Famo – Terene members; Rethabile “Mosotho Chakela” Mokete, Seabata “Lieta” Sello, Macheli “Lebese” Koeshe, Molefi “Mokata” Matima.  However, Mokete died on 5 January this year while the other three are suspected to be in hiding in South Africa.

It is still unclear whether or not Messrs Sello, Koeshe and Matima will be present to stand trial on 8 March 2022.

Mr and Ms Thabane sat next to each other at the boardroom table while Adv Mokhema, who was seated across them, conducted the proceedings.

They are facing four charges of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder and malicious damage to property.

“’Maesaiah Thabane – a Mosotho female adult and the First Lady of Lesotho at that time, Motsoahae Thomas Thabane, a Mosotho male adult and Prime Minister of Lesotho at that time, Rethabile Chakela Mokete – a Mosotho male adult residing in Bloemfontein South Africa, Seabata Sello Lieta – a Mosotho male adult residing in Mangaung in South Africa, Macheli Koeshe Lebese – a Mosotho male adult residing in Mangaung in South Africa and Molefi Matima Mokata – a Mosotho male adult residing in Sebokeng in South Africa, herein after called the accused, are guilty of the crime of contravening section 40(1) of the Penal Code 2010 read with section 40(2) and 26(1) thereof in that upon or about 14 June 2017, at or near Ha-Masana in the district of Maseru, the said accused in furtherance of a shared common purpose or intention did unlawfully and intentionally cause the death of Lipolelo Thabane – an adult Mosotho female (wife of the then Prime Minister), such death resulting from their act or omissions of the accused,” the first charge reads.

“(Second charge), The very same accused are guilty of contravening section 25, read with section 40(1)(2) and 26(1) of the Penal Code 2010 in that upon or about 14 June 2017 at or near Ficksburg in South Africa, the said accused unlawfully and intentionally conspired to cause the death of Lipolelo Thabane. (Third charge) … at or near Ha Manasa in the district of Maseru, the said accused in furtherance of a common intention or purpose did unlawfully and intentionally attempt to cause the death of Thato Sibolla – an adult Mosotho female – … by shooting inside a vehicle in which she was a passenger and was shot on her foot and stomach with a gun.

“(Fourth charge) … at or near Ha Masana in the district of Maseru, the said accused in furtherance of a shared common intention and purpose, did unlawfully and intentionally damage the body and interior of the said vehicle, a Chevrolet van bearing registration MM 795, the property of Lipolelo Thabane by firing at the said vehicle with a gun and did thereby cause damage to the body and interior of the said motor vehicle,”  reads the indictment prepared by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Hlalefang Motinyane.

Adv Mokhoema then asked the Thabanes about their place of residence as well as their next of kin and lawyers in the event these would be needed by the court.  She, however, said there was confidential information which would not be part of the proceedings due to its sensitivity. It is unclear what the nature of this information is.

Attorney Qhalehang Letsika appeared for Mr Thabane while Adv Salemane Phafane represented Ms Thabane.

Mr Thabane’s children from his first marriage to ‘Matoka Yayi Thabane, namely Toka, Potlako and Nkoya (nee ‘Mabatsoeneng Hlaele) were present providing moral support to their father and step-mother. Nkoya was noted as Mr Thabane’s next of kin while Potlako was registered as Ms Thabane’s.

Mr Thabane’s ABC legislators; Litsoane Litsoane (Bela-Bela), Samonyane Ntsekele (Tsikoane), Chalane Phori (Qoaling) and Thabang Mafojane from the Motimposo constituency were also present. Nkoya’s husband, Lebohang Hlaele, who is also the ABC’s secretary general, as well as former government secretary, Moahloli Mphaka, were also in attendance.

However, there were only a few party members unlike the last time when hundreds thronged the courts during ‘Maesaiah’s bail court appearance.

After Ms Thabane was charged in the Maseru Magistrates’ Court in February 2020, Mr Thabane subsequently appeared in the same court to raise a constitutional issue that he could not be charged whilst still prime minister. His lawyer Mr Letsika argued that as a sitting premier at the time, he was immune from prosecution. Magistrate Phethise Motanyane then referred the matter to the Constitutional Court for adjudication. But Mr Thabane and his lawyers never filed the Constitutional Court application.

Mr Thabane was then forced to resign as prime minister by his party in May 2020, with a powerful faction of his ABC then led by Professor Nqosa Mahao arguing that the country could not be ruled by a murder suspect.

Thereafter, rumours quickly spread that he would be arrested as his constitutional argument had become moot due to his forced resignation.  Mr Thabane himself even announced at an event at his house on 6 July 2020 that he was due to be arrested the following day. However, that never happened with Deputy Commissioner of Police, Paseka Mokete, saying he was “tying loose ends” before arresting Mr Thabane and taking him to court. That too did not happen.

Since that time, the police and the DPP’s office had been blaming each other with the police saying they had done their part but the DPP’s office was not acting. In turn, the DPP blamed the police for the delay, saying they had failed to cooperate with her on crucial aspects of the case.  Media reports blamed the delay on Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro who was alleged to be against any prosecution of Mr Thabane as part of effort to manage the ructions in the ABC.  Mr Thabane’s loyalists had threatened to oust Dr Majoro as prime minister if their party leader was charged.

The police accuse Mr Thabane and his much younger third wife, ‘Maesaiah, of plotting the murder of Lipolelo to facilitate ‘Maesaiah’s ascension to the post of First Lady. Lipolelo had been estranged from Mr Thabane but she had won the right to be recognised as the real First Lady because her long running divorce case with Mr Thabane had not been finalised. She was then killed on the eve of Mr Thabane’s inauguration for his second stint as premier in June 2017.

Mr Thabane and ‘Maesaiah married at a lavish ceremony shortly afterwards – and she hurriedly established her office as First Lady – since there was no longer any obstacle to her assuming that position.   The police and prosecution insist the only motive for Lipolelo’s murder was to pave way for the “impatient” ‘Maesaiah to become First Lady as Lipolelo had stood in her way. With divorce cases being generally a protracted affair, the Thabanes stand accused of having opted for the “quickest” and “easiest” way out by taking out Lipolelo.

A fortnight ago ‘Maesaiah asked the courts to relax her bail conditions. But the Crown opposed the application with DCP Mokete alleging that some of the witnesses in the case had been eliminated at the behest of the former First Lady. He did not name the witnesses.

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