Eight face human trafficking charges

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. . . move aimed at complying with US criteria for second MCC compact

Herbert Moyo

EIGHT people will soon be charged with human trafficking as part of measures to ensure Lesotho’s compliance with the recommendations of the United States government’s trafficking in persons report for 2021.

Home Affairs Minister, Motlalentoa Letsosa, made the announcement after meeting with US Ambassador, Rebecca Gonzales, at her Maseru residence this week. Police and Public Safety Minister, Lepota Sekola and his Law and Justice counterpart, Lekhetho Rakuoane, attended the meeting along with other Lesotho government and US embassy officials.

The US government considers human trafficking a serious offence and countries like Lesotho, which are on its Tier 2 Watchlist for trafficking, are ineligible to receive various forms of US development assistance.

Compliance with the US government’s recommendations to deal decisively with the human trafficking is part of the eligibility criteria for Lesotho to sign a multi-million-dollar second compact in terms of the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

Addressing the media after their meeting, Ms Gonzales acknowledged that the Lesotho government had made some “significant” steps over the past year including the passing the Anti-Trafficking (Amendment) Act last November to combat human trafficking by imposing lengthy and even life imprisonment on those convicted of the crime.

She however, said the government needs to do more including expediting investigations against government officials and others suspected of involvement in the trafficking of persons.

“As the US Ambassador to Lesotho, I will continue to reiterate that combating human trafficking is a top priority for the United States government,” Ms Gonzales said.

“My team and I want to support the government of Lesotho to make rapid progress towards achieving the recommendations in the 2021 TIP (Trafficking in Persons) Report to avoid any assistance restrictions. Time is of the essence.

“We want to see Lesotho’s meaningful anti-TIP progress that would warrant an upgrade to Tier 2 by the end of February 2022 because this means that we will have supported the protection of crucial foreign assistance and the country’s proposed second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact,” Ms Gonzales added.

On his part, Mr Letsosa said the government was working flat out to implement the TIP Report’s recommendation for “increased efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict traffickers through independent and fair trials including officials complicit in trafficking in persons”.

To that end, he said eight cases had already been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Hlalefang Motinyane, for prosecution.

“We are pleased to report that with respect to eight cases before the Director of Public Prosecutions, summonses have been issued to prosecute them. Further, the cabinet sub-committee has directed the multi-sectoral committee to resuscitate the Task Team to investigate and prosecute trafficking in persons cases and allocate necessary resources.

“The Ministry of Labour and Employment; the Home Affairs’ Department of Immigration and the police’s Anti-Trafficking Unit have an operational joint task force for the inspection of the regularity of foreign workers and employers to ensure compliance with the law and to detect potential cases of trafficking. As a result of this effort, there are cases being detected and investigations are ongoing and this will determine whether or not government officials are involved,” Mr Letsosa said.

He said cabinet had directed the police to establish regional focal points for the coordination of anti-trafficking activities “while the long-term strategic objective is to establish fully fledged anti trafficking units, with sufficient resources at district level”.

Mr Letsosa said in the coming in the coming weeks, the TIP focal points will be established in Butha-Buthe (this will also cater for Mokhotlong district), Leribe (also covering Thaba Tseka), Mafeteng and Mohale’s Hoek (also covering Quthing and Qacha’s Nek).

“Specific attention will be afforded to mining districts and factories in Butha-Buthe as these areas are expected to increase TIP sensitive situations. The government is considering placing a police attaché at the Lesotho High Commission in South Africa which will include the element of trafficking and liaise with police within South Africa and Lesotho.

“The government has opened a specific bank account with a commercial bank to address TIP related matters specifically to support victims of trafficking and the government’s commitment with partner organisations such as Beautiful Dreams Society and others. We have also reallocated funds to the said account and we will ensure appropriate funding in the upcoming financial year,” Mr Letsosa said.

Ms Gonzales thanked Minister Letsosa for “taking critical and decisive action to address several vitally important human trafficking concerns”.

“His leadership has been instrumental in the government’s response to many of the issues I have raised over the last year — including the allocation of funding for shelter and protective services for victims of trafficking. Working with key community partners, like Beautiful Dreams Society, the Government of Lesotho, through the Ministry of Home Affairs, he has started to prioritise the safekeeping of Lesotho citizens who have been victimised by traffickers. Minister Letsosa has also engaged in extensive outreach to sensitise local communities and officials on the importance of preventing trafficking in persons.

“I also want to thank Minister Sekola for his engagement and collaboration with US law enforcement agencies to increase efforts to investigate and prosecute traffickers, including officials complicit in trafficking crimes. Specifically, sustained efforts to fund the police trafficking and smuggling unit and to establish a focal point in all ten districts will ensure effective responsiveness to all potential trafficking cases in Lesotho. We have immediate plans to support the development of critical skills through law enforcement training and other professional development exchanges,” Ms Gonzales said.

She also thanked Minister Rakuoane for his commitment to anti-corruption efforts “which will be key in the Lesotho government’s efforts to ensure officials complicit in trafficking crimes are prosecuted”.

Back in July this year, Lesotho was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List on the US State Department’s human trafficking index report for 2021. This in recognition of the “positive” steps taken by the Moeketsi Majoro administration to meet eligibility criteria for development assistance.

Lesotho moved up from Tier 3, the lowest ranking. Ordinarily countries in Tier 3 automatically lose US developments assistance and cannot benefit from multi-million-dollar programmes like the MCC.

However, the US government last year exempted Lesotho from being punished. This was done to give Dr Majoro’s then newly-formed government the chance to rectify the failings of the previous Thomas Thabane administration which it succeeded in May 2020.

The decision to upgrade Lesotho to the Tier 2 Watch List was welcomed by Dr Majoro who said this meant that “Lesotho may sign MCC Compact by end 2021”.

However, Ms Gonzales immediately set the record straight, saying the upgrading would not immediately translate into millions of dollars for Lesotho’s social investment projects under a second MCC compact.

She said a final agreement for a lucrative second compact hinges on the government addressing various issues raised by the US government and the MCC board. These include dealing decisively with the scourge of human trafficking and other human rights abuses, implementing SADC recommended multi-sector reforms and fighting corruption. 

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