Fugitive soldier nabbed

Major Ntele Ntoi
Major Ntele Ntoi

By Bongiwe Zihlangu

MASERU — Fugitive Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldier, Thabang Phaila, one of the alleged key masterminds of the violent political riots that rocked Lesotho after the 1998 general elections, is in military custody after being nabbed by the Military Police (MP), after 15 years on the run.

Highly placed military sources told the Lesotho Times this week that Phaila has been in the MP custody for over a month now and is being kept in a cell at the Makoanyane Barracks in Ha-Leqele.

Phaila fled the country to avoid prosecution for his part in the army mutiny linked to the violent 1998 post-election political riots that left Lesotho on the brink and elicited the intervention of Southern African Development Community (SADC) troops to restore order.

LDF spokesperson, Major Ntlele Ntoi, confirmed to this paper yesterday that “Second Lt Thabang Phaila is indeed in military custody after he was arrested by the MP on October 5” after deserting the military in 1998.

“We had been looking for him all these years and we arrested him at the first opportunity we got.”

Ntoi said Phaila had deserted the army when he was about to be arrested on suspicion that “he was involved in the 1998 military mutiny”.

“He is facing two charges, one of mutiny and another of desertion,” Ntoi said.

Phaila faces a 25-year jail sentence if convicted on both counts as per the Lesotho Defence Force Act of 1996.

According to the Act, a soldier can be charged with mutiny “if he/she takes part in a mutiny or incites any person subject to this Act, to take part in a mutiny, whether actual or intended . . . and shall upon conviction be liable to a term not exceeding 20 years”.

Section 54 (b) of the Act on desertion states that a soldier who committed the offence of desertion while on active service is liable to “imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years”.

Section 54 (2) (c) further stipulates that an offence of desertion is committed when a soldier absents himself without leave or avoids service when required.

“This applies depending on the circumstances reigning in the country, like during instability when his service is needed,” Ntoi said.

However, Ntoi said, the sentences could be served concurrently or could be reduced in mitigation.

Ntoi added that the reason Phaila has been in military detention for over a month is because the LDF was “waiting for the convening of the court martial . . .”.

“He was supposed to appear before the court martial today (yesterday) but the case has been postponed to Monday, December 2,” Ntoi said.

Although the law requires any accused person to be charged within 48 hours of arrest, Ntoi said the Lesotho Defence Force Act allows for the incarceration of military personnel for a longer period if circumstances demand it.

He referred to Section 89 (2) of the Act which states that “whenever any person subject to this Act, having been taken into military custody, remains under arrest for longer than 14 days without a court martial for his trial being assembled, a special report on the necessity for further delay shall be made by his commanding officer to the commander of the defence force in the prescribed manner.”

The section adds: “A similar report shall be made to the like authorities and in the like manner every 14 days until either a court martial is assembled or the offence is dealt with summarily or he is released from arrest.”

In September 1998 junior soldiers led by, among others, the late Hosanna Sako arrested senior LDF officers at two army barracks and the air wing base and imprisoned them at the maximum security prison in Maseru.

They were later rescued.

The then LDF commander, Lieutenant-General Makhula Mosakeng, was arrested and escorted to the state radio station where he was forced to announce the dismissal of more than 30 LDF senior members.

Mosakeng was also forced to announce that he had resigned as the commander of Lesotho’s army.

In all, thirty-three members of the LDF were convicted of mutiny by courts martial, outside Maseru’s maximum security prison.

The soldiers were also convicted of conspiracy to round up certain officers by force, remove their insignia and locking them up in the maximum security prison.

Four others were found not guilty and discharged.

Fifty soldiers were originally charged, but charges against some of the accused were dropped during the trial.

The Lesotho Times has been told that Phaila had fled to Rome in 1998 where he lived for a while before he went to South Africa where he stayed most of the time until his return to Lesotho recently.

However, this newspaper could not independently verify these claims.

Phaila was nevertheless arrested shortly after returning to Lesotho.

Different military sources and former soldiers who were at one point or another directly or indirectly linked to the mutiny and are privy to Phaila’s whereabouts, told us that the renegade soldier was apparently advised to hand himself over to the MP by some senior army officials once his return became known. However, Ntoi insisted that Phaila had not handed himself in but had been arrested by the MP.

Phaila fled the country just before being charged after he had been fingered in the failed plot to topple the then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) government during the 1998 riots.

One of our sources with deep knowledge of the mutiny said that Phaila, Sako, the late Makotoko “Mashai” Lerotholi, Lerotholi Ntlama, and two other soldiers, were the masterminds behind the plot to topple Mosisili’s government. According to the source, the group would meet in Roman Catholic Church (RCC) priest, Reverend Anthony Thabo Monyau’s office, at the church’s main cathedral premises in Maseru.

There, the source added, the soldiers would seek counselling from the reverend while confiding in him about their plan to topple government.

Although they did not always pay visits together at the same time, the source said, Phaila did visit Monyau and discussed their coup plans with the priest on several occasions. In some instances, they visited the priest as a group. Monyau, now based in South Africa, declined to comment on when contacted this week.

However, for his role in the 1998 disturbances, Monyau was found guilty of sedition and subversion and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was only released this year.

Sako was charged court-martialed with the other accomplices and was jailed until his release in 2008.

He told the Lesotho Times  last year,  shortly after his confirmation as the BNP candidate for the Thetsane constituency, for the May 2012 polls that he did not regret his role in the 1998 disturbances and the subsequent prison sentence he endured  because he felt the Mosisili administration was “illegitimate” and “it simply had to be removed”.

 

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