Former Court of Appeal Assistant Registrar, Matieho Mothobi, was this week grilled by the police after criminal charges were laid against her for allegedly leaking confidential court information.
Ms Mothobi, worked as the Court of Appeal Assistant Registrar until 21 June 201, when she took up a new post as mediator at the High Court. She now stands accused of leaking confidential documents, including a controversial February 2017 email, between her and the Zimbabwean born judge, Justice Moses Chinhengo.
The email suggests that Justice Chinhengo is friends with Justice Kananelo Mosito, in whose favour he ruled, in a recent case dealing with the latter’s long stalled appointment to lead the Court of Appeal for the second time.
Senior Inspector Rantoane Motsoetla, from the police public relations office, confirmed that Ms Mothobi had been hauled to police headquarters in Maseru for questioning over the allegations.
“I can confirm that ‘M’e Matieho Mothobi was called by the police for questioning on Monday. She was not arrested but merely called to help the police with investigations,” Snr Inspector Motsoetla said, adding she had been released the same day after “successfully assisting us with the investigations”.
Justice Chinhengo recently refused to recuse himself from a case involving Judge Mosito, the former Court of Appeal president, despite protestations by Attorney Qhalehang Letsika, Advocates Karabo Mohau, Motiea Tele and Zwelakhe Mda that he was conflicted.
The leaked email suggests that Justice Chinhengo is friends with Justice Mosito and should have recused himself from the case in which the Law Society of Lesotho had petitioned the apex court for an order that Justice Mosito’s appeal, against a Constitutional Court judgement which blocked his reinstatement, be set and heard within 14 days from the 2nd of October 2018.
Dr Mosito, the Prime Minister, Minister of Law and Constitutional Affairs, Minister of Justice and Correctional Service, Attorney General, His Majesty King Letsie, Attorney Letsika and Advocates Mohau, Tele and Mda and the Registrar of the High Court and Court of Appeal were cited as 1st to 11th respondents respectively in the Law Society’s petition.
Justice Chinhengo ruled in favour of the Law Society, ordering that the appeal be heard within 20 court days. This means the appeal is now due to be heard before 29 October 2018. Justice Chinhengo delivered his judgment last Tuesday. The email was then leaked shortly afterwards on Thursday.
Justice Chinhengo ruled that the lawyers’ argument that he could be conflicted could not be sustained and dismissed their recusal application. But the leaked 21 February 2017 email between him and Ms Mothobi seems to suggest otherwise.
The email, of which the Lesotho Times has a copy, was in relation to a case involving the appointment of Court of Appeal judges to hear Dr Mosito’s appeal against a Constitutional Court judgment that had nullified his re-appointment as Court of Appeal president. Judge Chinhengo, who sits in the Court of Appeal, appeared in the main to want to recuse himself from the case.
“I have previously recused myself from matters involving Dr Mosito,” Justice Chinhengo wrote in the e-mail to Ms Mothobi.
“Since my appointment to the Court of Appeal bench and working with Dr Mosito, albeit for a short period, I developed a fairly close friendship with him at the personal level. My judgement may be coloured by that relationship.
“I lecture part time in procedural law at the University in Zimbabwe where Dr Mosito is an external examiner. He being the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Lesotho, his appointment as external examiner was on my recommendation in 2015. I would rather not sit in his appeal for these reasons unless there are compelling reasons that I do so,” Justice Chinhengo states in the email.
Attempts to get a comment from Ms Mothobi were unsuccessful as her mobile phone was not reachable and she did not respond to a WhatsApp messages left in her inbox.
In a separate interview, High Court Acting Deputy Registrar Mojela Shale, said it was the “management of the High Court” which had reported Ms Mothobi to the police on suspicion that she might be responsible for leaking confidential government documents from the Court of Appeal, including the email.
“Confidential government documents have been leaked from the office (which she held) and as she was virtually the chief accounting officer, there are therefore suspicions that she might be the one who leaked those documents,” Adv Shale said.
He said that all civil servants, including Ms Mothobi, were sworn to the oath of secrecy upon their recruitment into the public service. The leaking of confidential government documents goes against the oath.
“We are not conclusively saying Ms Mothobi is the one leaking these confidential documents but as the chief accounting officer, when a confidential communication that took place between her and the judge (Justice Chinhengo) and other judges is leaked, she is the first suspect and there are strong suspicions that she is responsible for this as this was her communication.
“All civil servants are sworn to secrecy and when confidential government documents are leaked, investigation procedures must be taken and we have since reported the matter to the police who will investigate our suspicion that she is responsible for this,” Adv Shale said.
He said that the leaked communication and other documents were never for public consumption and should have remained confidential. In a case where such is leaked, Adv Shale said, criminal charges must be laid against the suspects.
He said that legal steps had to be taken to send a strong message to civil servants that anyone suspected of leaking confidential documents will face the wrath of the law.
On information that Ms Mothobi has since been asked to vacate her office at the Court of Appeal premises after the leakage, Adv Shale said Ms Mothobi and others were promoted to the mediator positions by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) on 21 June 2018 and should thus have moved offices already. Ms Mothobi had nonetheless remained working from her office at the Court of Appeal despite her appointment to the High Court.
Adv Shale said that although mediators were legally supposed to be housed at the High Court premises, there had been resistance from the recently promoted mediators to leave their respective offices and relocate to the High Court premises because, at the moment, “there were no individual offices marked for such.”
“So, on Friday (5 October 2018), she was told to immediately vacate the Court of Appeal Assistant Registrar’s offices to come and work from the High Court because she should have relocated to here immediately after her promotion.
“She wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place because she is a junior. The Court of Appeal is administered by the Deputy Registrar but she was posted there because at the time there was only one deputy registrar.”
Ms Mothobi’s probe has, however, left the High Court deeply divided with some of her colleagues suggesting that her grilling is a witch-hunt against suspended Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara’s “loyalists”.
“There is no case against Ms Mothobi. The concerned email was not strictly between her and Justice Chinhengo. The email was a group message between her and other judges and there is no way that the management can say with certainty that she is the one who leaked it. Anyone copied into the mail could have leaked it,” one source said, adding “there are now two teams here, those supporting the suspended CJ (Majara) and the current Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase”.
The source said there were bound to be such actions taken against those viewed as working in common cause with Justice Majara.
However, another source said suspicions that Ms Mothobi could in fact have leaked the email and other confidential documents were rampant in the judiciary. Some court officials, using muffled tones, had been alleging that Ms Mothobi was a mole for the opposition.
The source said there were suspicions that Democratic Congress (DC) spokesperson, Serialong Qoo, could have been referring to Ms Mothobi as the leaker of the email in his recent radio interview with a local radio station.
In an audio that has since gone viral on social media, Mr Qoo is heard saying “immediately after delivering a judgement, that person whom the judge gave a copy of an email at that time (February 2017) when the judge did the right thing, has since brought to the fore that copy”.