MASERU — A senior lawyer has pulled out of a case in which eight men are facing death penalty if found guilty of attempting to assassinate Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and topple the government on April 22, 2009.
Attorney Molefi Ntlhoki was representing Solomon Mabasa, a South African, and Antonio Lopez, a Mozambican, who were part of the group that allegedly attacked Makoanyane Barracks and tried to assassinate Mosisili in a coup that ended in failure.
Mabasa and Lopez were arrested before they could flee the country.
Four of the suspect’s accomplices were killed in gun battles with Lesotho’s security forces while the other seven crossed the border into South Africa where they were arrested and later extradited back to Lesotho.
Together with six others, Mabasa and Lopez are facing 31 charges that include murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, robbery and illegal entry into Lesotho.
They could be hanged if convicted for murder.
Ntlhoki was hired by the High Court to represent the duo because they could not afford a lawyer.
The other six suspects are being represented by Attorney Haae Phoofolo.
Ntlhoki told the Lesotho Times on Monday that he withdrew from the case because the Registrar of the High Court, ’Mathato Sekoai, wanted him to reduce his legal fees to “unacceptable” levels.
Ntlhoki said he informed Sekoai that his appearance fee would be M18 000 per day but she wrote back saying his fee was too high.
He said after much haggling they agreed on M3 000 per day.
The Lesotho Times is in possession of correspondences between Ntlhoki and Sekoai.
“I am aware of the complexity of the matter at hand and the fact that pro-deo fees are a bit too little for a case of this magnitude,” wrote Sekoai in a letter dated August 16 last year.
“I am however afraid that the M18 000 per day fee suggested is way out of range for the High Court budget and I would humbly offer M3 000 as a daily rate for the case,” she said.
In a letter dated August 23 last year, Ntlhoki responded that although he accepted the M3 000 charge per day he would however need to bill the High Court for extra services such as translating the interviews and other necessary
communication into languages the accused understood.
Mabasa and Lopez do not speak Sesotho and there is no guarantee that they understand English.
This means that all communication will have to be translated into languages they understand.
“How do I bill you for this important aspect of the case? Will I use the daily rate as suggested by you?” Ntlhoki asked.
“If I cannot in anyway bill you for this aspect I would have serious problems accepting this pro-deo case as this aspect of the matter will require me to devote a lot of many hours and attention,” he said.
Ntlhoki said they waited for the arrival of the other suspects from South Africa until the court went into winter recess.
“It was during the winter recess when I got a message from the Registrar that I should lower my fees as they are too high,” Ntlhoki said.
“After consideration I concluded that I could only work for a rate of M2 500 per day and I put this in writing to the Registrar,” he said.
“However, Sekoai insisted that I must come down to the normal or standard rate for pro-deo counsel, which is M350 per day for the first accused and M200 for Solomon Mabasa per day.”
This comes to M550 a day.
Ntlhoki said given the complexity of the case, which will have 30 witnesses, and amount of work involved he could not agree to be paid a meagre M550 per appearance.
He then told Sekoai that he “can only go down to M2 500 per appearance in court”.
“Anything below that cannot even meet my office overheads such as salary for my employees, rent and something to take home to feed my small family.”
Sekoai on June 21 this year wrote Ntlhoki saying the High Court would not afford the fees he was demanding.
“I regret to inform you that the High Court budget cannot sustain M2 500 per appearance. In fact we cannot sustain anything above the rate stipulated in the tariff per day,” she said.
“I think at this point Mr Solomon Mabasa and Antonio Lopez will have to look for another lawyer.”
Ntlhoki said he then decided to withdraw from the case.
The M18 000 per day rate Ntlhoki had initially charged was at par with what South African lawyers often hired by the state to prosecute in complex cases like this one are paid.
Sekoai told the Lesotho Times on Tuesday that she could not do anything about the rates because they were a “prerogative of the Chief Justice”.
Fees for lawyers hired by the state to represent suspects were last reviewed by the late Chief Justice Lebona Kheola in 1999.
She said it was wrong for local lawyers to compare their fees to those of South Africa lawyers hired by the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP).
“The DPP operates separately from our office,” Sekoai said.
“The lawyers engaged by the DPP to prosecute in his cases are the ones coming up with fees suitable for them while in our case things are different,” Sekoai said.
“We are two different offices that do different things. My office pays legal bills for defendants whose charges carry death sentence and are unable to finance their defence. We stick to the pro-deo fees set by the Chief Justice.”
Phoofolo who is representing the other suspects said he understands why Ntlhoki has pulled out of the case.
“I don’t blame my colleague Ntate Ntlhoki for withdrawing from this case. The fees are too low and no senior lawyer would want to waste his time and energy for M500,” Phoofolo said.
“I am roped in it because these accused deserve representation of a senior counsel because of the seriousness of this case,” he said.
“I blame the Law Society of Lesotho for having not negotiated for the increment of tariffs till now.”
The Law Society of Lesotho vice-president, Monaheng Rasekoai said the charges need to be reviewed urgently.
“The Law Society has been sitting on its laurels. Lawyers did approach Law Society complaining about tariffs,” Rasekoai said.
“It was too obvious for us that over 10 years nothing has been done to review them. We acknowledge it but the issue is that we do not have the power to review them,” he said.
“The prerogative power to increase these tariffs rests solely with the Chief Justice. The Law Society only has a mandate to recommend.”
Rasekoai said foreign prosecutors hired by the DPP and local lawyers defending the accused pro-deo should be treated equally.
He said the money paid to foreign prosecutors engaged by the DPP in some cases and the one paid to local lawyers in pro-deo arrangement comes from the same taxpayers.
Serious as the case might be, legal regime has to ensure that the tariffs are reviewed, taking into account the state of the inflation affecting everybody in the country, Rasekoai said.