Soldiers demand torture inquiry

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Keiso Mohloboli

TWENTY-THREE Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) facing mutiny charges before the Court Martial want Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to establish an independent inquiry into their arrest, torture and “degrading treatment” allegedly at the hands of their military colleagues.

In a letter to Dr Mosisili penned by their lawyers, the soldiers also say they have “lost all confidence” in government’s ability to investigate the alleged infractions, and would consider “extraterritorial means to get justice” if the premier does not agree to their demand.

The missive, dated 20 June 2016, was copied to Southern African Development Community (SADC) facilitator to Lesotho Cyril Ramaphosa, SADC Executive Secretary Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax, United States Ambassador to Lesotho Matthew Harrington, European Union Ambassador to Lesotho Dr Michael Doyle and Attorney-General (AG) Tšokolo Makhethe (King’s Counsel).

The soldiers were arrested between May and June 2015 for allegedly plotting to violently remove the LDF command. Seven of the soldiers have since been released from Maseru Maximum Security Prison and placed under open arrest, which is a form of bail in the military. The other 16 remain in detention.

The accused soldiers are Brigadier Mareka, Brigadier Poqa Motoa, Colonel Stemere, Colonel Kolisang, Major Makhetha, Captain Chaka, Second-Lieutenant Mohasi, Sergeant Mokhobo, Sergeant Semakale, Sergeant Lekhabunyane, Corporal Mokhoro, Corporal Letsilane, Corporal Lipoto, Corporal Manaka, Corporal Mohatlane, Corporal Chele, Corporal Motseko, Lance-Corporal Jobo, Lance-Corporal Molefi, Lance-Corporal Makhooane, Private Pama, Private Bolofo and Private Ralitlemo.

Through their lawyers – Attorneys Tumisang Mosotho and Khotso Nthontho as well as Advocates Koili Ndebele, Mole Kumalo, Molefi Rasekoai and Christopher Lephuting – the soldiers allege they were “abducted by heavily armed and masked members of the LDF” and taken to Setibing army base.

“Though the LDF later claimed that our clients were under arrest, we find the manner of the alleged arrest to fit the definition of enforced disappearance under Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance,” the soldiers’ letter reads.

“Our clients were only charged several weeks/days after the arrests were carried out. The initial concealment of the detention location and reasons for arrests are of concern.”

The lawyers argue the soldiers and their families were not informed of the reasons for the arrests. There were also allegations, the solicitors state, that the soldiers were kept in solitary confinement and subjected to various forms of torture and inhumane treatment at Setibing.

Among the forms of torture allegedly meted out on the soldiers include being blindfolded and kept in shackles (both wrists and ankles); submerged in below-freezing water; tied naked on a pole at sub-zero temperatures; physically assaulted, including kicks in the diaphragm, ribcage and scrotum and suffocating with a tube; beaten with rifle butts and metal bars; denied access to food, water and medication; suspended by hanging their  handcuffed wrists tied behind the backs on the roof and being subjected to electric shocks.

The soldiers allege they were accused of being members of the “opposition bloc” and “furthering the mandate of the opposition to destabilise the Defence Force and the country as a whole” while being tortured by their colleagues.

“Our clients inform us that torture was used as a coercive interrogation technique to force them and other soldiers who are now accomplice-witnesses to confess to partaking in the alleged mutiny plot and to also implicate other members of the LDF and civilians,” say the lawyers.

“There are further allegations that some of the said accomplice-witnesses were compelled to sign confession forms under the torture”.

The lawyers also point to the soldiers’ court appearance following their arrest in June 2015.

“Your Excellency will be aware that the families of the abovementioned members of the LDF instituted writs habeas corpus in the High Court of Lesotho and it was during their production before the court that the detainees displayed visible signs of torture and even testified in open court about being tortured,” reads the letter.

Several High Court judgements, the lawyers say, also make reference to the soldiers having been tortured at Setibing, adding the SADC Commission of Inquiry also makes “detailed reference” to the allegations of torture and inhumane treatment.

They emphasise that the Constitution of Lesotho and other legal instruments prohibit all forms of torture, inhumane or degrading punishment or treatment.

“Your Excellency will know well that under Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, every individual is guaranteed the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being and all forms of exploitation and degradation of man, including torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment and treatment are prohibited.”

The lawyers also argue that internal political stability and notions such as necessity and public order could not be invoked as  justification for torture and inhumane treatment. The government, the lawyers posit, had a responsibility to carry out investigations into the alleged torture.

“. . . the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment requires state parties, of their own initiative, to carry out investigations of torture even if there has been no formal complaint,” reads the correspondence.

“We note with concern that despite the abovementioned allegations of torture and degrading treatment being in the public domain, the government of Lesotho, through all relevant state institutions, has failed to uphold its obligations to conduct investigations into torture and other ill-treatment, and to bring those responsible to justice.

“We note further that to date, the government of Lesotho has not investigated, prosecuted or disciplined any members of the LDF for their role in the torture and abuse of our clients herein.”

The soldiers could no longer trust government agencies to carry out the probe, the lawyers argue.

“In the circumstances, Your Excellency, we regret to advise you that our clients have lost all confidence in the state machinery to ever investigate these serious allegations of torture and abuse and to bring those responsible to justice.”

The soldiers accuse the offices of the LDF commander, Commissioner of Police, Director of Public Prosecutions and AG of being complicit in the inaction, demanding that they not be involved in the proposed inquiry.

“ . . . torture is a heinous crime and should never go unpunished. We thus call upon your Excellency to consider establishing an independent Commission of Inquiry to conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations into the allegations of torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of all members of the LDF who were arrested and detained during May – June 2015,” states the letter.

“Your Excellency will be aware that the crime of torture attracts universal jurisdiction, and should such a Commission of Inquiry not be established, our clients reserve the right to consider extraterritorial means to get justice.

“Kindly respond to us on or before 4 July 2016, failing which our clients reserve their right to consider alternative avenues of redress.”

Contacted for comment yesterday, Dr Mosisili’s Senior Private Secretary, Mamello Morrison, said she was in a meeting and would respond after 3pm. However, repeated attempts to get in touch with her later were fruitless as her phone rang unanswered.

The premier’s spokesperson, Motumi Ralejoe, was also not reachable yesterday.

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