Police brutality rears its ugly head again

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  • as prominent human rights lawyer is abducted and brutally tortured,
  • while another lawyer goes into hiding as police threaten to kill him.

 

Mohalenyane Phakela | ‘Marafaele Mohloboli

IT may be a new year but Lesotho is experiencing the same old story of police brutality under Commissioner Holomo Molibeli’s watch.

This time the victim is prominent human rights lawyer, Napo Mafaesa, who was allegedly abducted on Tuesday and severely tortured by members of the police special operations unit (SOU).

He was arrested at Hopolang Building in Maseru and briefly detained at the nearby police headquarters before being moved to Mabote Police Station where he was allegedly tortured.

He was arrested on allegations of concealing a gun belonging to his client, one Makhakhe. The gun is said to have been used in the commission of a robbery at an unspecified date in Mafeteng. Police spokesperson Mpiti Mopeli yesterday confirmed Adv Mafaesa’s arrest but denied that he had been tortured.

Makhakhe is said to have been arrested as well and tortured at the same Mabote station.

Adv Mafaesa was released on Tuesday night only after another prominent lawyer, Kabelo Letuka, had filed an urgent habeas corpus application for his release.

Adv Neo Komota, who moved the habeus corpus application before Judge Fumane Khabo, yesterday said Adv Mafaesa was now out of custody and receiving medical treatment for his injuries in Mafeteng.

She alleged that Adv Letuka was now in hiding as he was allegedly threatened with death by the same police officers who had arrested Adv Mafaesa.

Commenting on the issue, Senior Supt Mopeli yesterday said, “Advocate Mafaesa was arrested on Tuesday between 5pm and 6pm by a team of Special Operations Unit officers”.

“He was arrested in connection with a gun which was given to him for safe-keeping by his client whose name we cannot divulge at this juncture. He was not tortured by the police.”

However, in his court papers, Adv Letuka said Adv Mafaesa had been arrested together with his client, Makhakhe, and both men had been tortured by the police.

Upon learning of Adv Mafaesa’s arrest, Adv Letuka filed a habeas corpus application for his release.

In his High Court application on Tuesday, Adv Letuka also petitioned the court to order the police to refrain from torturing Adv Mafaesa.

The Officer Commanding Mabote Police, the Officer Commanding Special Operations Unit, Commissioner Molibeli and Attorney General Rapelang Motsieloa were the first to fourth respondents respectively in the application.

In his court papers, Adv Letuka said on Tuesday afternoon, he and Adv Mafaesa had been working on an urgent application in connection with the arrest of Makhakhe by SOU officers.

“Later on at around 6.30pm, I later received a call from him (Mafaesa) informing me that the Mabote Police officers had called him, saying that he should submit to them the phone that belonged to his client. Adv Mafaesa informed me that he told the police that he was not in possession of the said mobile phone and the police officers seemed to be aggravated by him not having the phone. They further inquired about his whereabouts and he duly informed them that he was in his office and the police officers said they were coming to arrest him.

“After a few minutes, when I could not find him on his mobile phone, I decided to pass by the Mabote Police and immediately upon my arrival I saw the police vehicle which had just arrived. Thereafter I saw two people offloading (sic) from the vehicle and I immediately noticed Adv Mafaesa chained together with Makhakhe on the legs. It came to my realisation that they could not walk properly and they seemed hurt. (sic).

“I followed them into the police station but unfortunately they disappeared into an office. I inquired from the reception but the receptionist was very rude and they chased me out of the office. I decided to go to Special Operations Unit offices. I requested to see Adv Mafaesa but one of the police officers said that I seemed to be wasting their time. Later on, the police officers called me in.”

Adv Letuka said he was only allowed to see and talk to Adv Mafaesa for only two minutes. He said Adv Mafaesa could not say much as he was in pain after being  tortured.

“He (Mafaesa) narrated to me that the police arrived at his office pointing a gun at him and he was then chained on the feet and thrown into the police vehicle. He further narrated that when they were in the vehicle, the police officers asked him to produce Makhakhe’s gun but he told them that he did not know about the gun.

“He was driven around in a vehicle which had dark windows and he was in pain. It was only when he got out of the vehicle that he realised that he was at Mabote Police Station. I must bring to the attention of the court that I was only given about two minutes to consult Adv Mafaesa. He could not tell me everything in detail but I could see that he had been tortured and he was in pain. Adv Mafaesa also informed me that he was shown his client, Makhakhe, who was in bad shape due to the torture he was subjected to and his hand was broken as well,” Adv Letuka stated in his court papers.

He said Adv Mafaesa also told him that the police had warned him that he would be tortured just as badly as Makhakhe if he did not hand over the latter’s gun.

Moving the application, Adv Komota told the court that she was related to Adv Mafaesa and they worked together.

She pleaded with the court to order his release, saying he was in a bad state in police custody. Any delays in releasing him “could have dire consequences to his life,” Adv Komota argued.

Justice Khabo granted the application. Commissioner Molibeli and his subordinates were ordered “to release Adv Mafaesa from police custody and appear before this court with Adv Napo Mafaesa on 12 January 2022 (yesterday) and show cause why the said Adv Napo Mafaesa shall not be released from police custody forthwith.

“The respondents are interdicted, restrained and stopped forthwith from assaulting Adv Napo Mafaesa and subjecting him to any form of ill-treatment,” Justice Khabo ordered.

Yesterday, Adv Komota appeared in Justice Khabo’s chambers alongside the police’s lawyers. When she emerged from the chambers, Adv Komota told this publication that it was no longer necessary for the police to produce Adv Mafaesa before the judge because they had already released him on Tuesday night. He was already in Mafeteng where he was recuperating from his torture wounds, she said.

Adv Komota also alleged that Adv Letuka had gone into hiding after receiving death threats from the police on Tuesday night.

Adv Mafaesa’s torture is merely the latest in the long line of accusations of brutality that have been levelled against the police since Commissioner Molibeli’s appointment in 2017.

The police have lost their way after a promising start by Commissioner Molibeli. Shortly after his appointment, the police boss raised the nation’s hopes of good days ahead when he solved the ‘mysterious disappearance’ of the late Police Constable (PC) Mokalekale Khetheng. Commissioner Molibeli also caused the arrest of treason and murder-accused former army commander, Tlali Kamoli, in 2017.

But since then, everything has gone south with the police being accused of grave human rights violations under his watch.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) has even expressed concerns over the “persistent allegations of police brutality” in Lesotho. The ACHPR’s plea to the government to capacitate the relevant institutions to enable them to investigate allegations of human rights violations has so far been ignored by the authorities.

Under Commissioner Molibeli’s watch, the High Court and Court of Appeal have also granted the highest known damages awards to torture victims.

In May 2021, the Court of Appeal awarded a massive M250 000 to a Mafeteng man, Tšolo Tjela, who was tortured by police officers in 2015.

The apex court savaged the police for “turning the country into a lawless state” through the torture of suspects.

Mr Tjela had initially been awarded a whooping M400 090 by  Justice Sakoane Sakoane who heard his application against the police in November 2020 a few months before his elevation to the position of chief justice.

Besides awarding the massive M400 090 damages, Justice Sakoane lambasted former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane for his reckless utterances while in office inciting police to torture civilians and engage in other gross human rights violations.

In the most damning indictment of a then sitting prime minister, Justice Sakoane said through his reckless utterances, Mr Thabane had incited the police and other security agencies to subject civilians to “state-sponsored violence” in violation of constitutional provisions guaranteeing their freedom from cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.

Justice Sakoane’s judgment was largely upheld by the appeal court, save for the reduction in the quantum of damages.

Ironically in 2020, Mr Thabane unsuccessfully attempted to fire the police chief whom he had appointed. He accused Commissioner Molibeli of gross incompetence including his persistent failure to address the thorny issue of police brutality. However, the police chief successfully petitioned the High Court to stop his ouster. He alleged that Mr Thabane was only firing him to get back at him for instituting an investigation which had found that the former premier and his current wife, ‘Maesaiah, were behind the 14 June 2017 murder of his ex-wife, Lipolelo.

The Thabanes are due to stand trial for the murder in March this year.

The latest torture of a prominent human rights lawyer, whose prominence and high status alone should be enough to scare the police from assaulting him, proves that the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) has completely gone rogue under Commissioner Molibeli’s stewardship.

While the police are now in the forefront of human rights violations, the real perpetrators of heinous crimes like gender-based violence (GBV) and murder, which have catapulted Lesotho into the murder capital of Africa and sixth in the world, continue having a field day; thanks to Commissioner Molibeli’s legendary incompetence.

Just as an example, four years after the murder of Kubetsoana businesswoman, Mathabang Radiile, by her live-in lover Lebohang Nkuebe  – and the brutal assault of Ms Radiile’s four month infant granddaughter by the same Nkuebe during the commission of the crime , the police have done nothing despite the widespread publicity the crime attracted and multiple direct appeals for action made by the Radiile family directly to Commissioner Molibeli.

A Mabote police officer, Kubutu Kubutu, who helped Nkuebe evade prosecution, is still firmly in his job, perhaps assisting more criminals evade justice. Instead of acting against Nkuebe, who confessed to committing the crime, Kubutu has instead elected to sue the Lesotho Times for our steadfast reporting of police abuses and after our popular Scrutator columnist labelled police officers like him as “unlamentable skunks”.  The Lesotho Times has welcomed the lawsuit as a good opportunity to address police incompetence in court.

In its aborted bid to recall Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro from his job, the national executive committee (NEC) of the All Basotho Convention (ABC) had cited his failure to address ever rising crime among its reasons of wanting him fired as premier.  Dr Majoro’s failure to act against Commissioner Molibeli is a sore thorn in the hearts of many victims of crime and police brutality.  Instead of pursuing the seemingly futile recall option, the premier’s critics now hope the leadership question will be resolved when the ABC elects a new leader end of this month.

 

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