TRC slams govt for “plotting to derail high-profile trials” 

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Pascalinah Kabi

THE Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) has accused the government of “pulling stunts” to derail the high-profile trials of politicians, serving and former members of the security agencies.

The leading human rights organisation says the “stunts” include providing inadequate funding and assistance to the judiciary. It has also criticised the government for its failure to timeously renew the contract of Zimbabwean Judge Charles Hungwe’s contract to preside over the trials. Justice Hungwe’s contract expired on 31 October 2021. The contract is supposed to be renewed by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). It has however, not been renewed and this has thrown the trials he was presiding over into uncertainty.

The TRC believes that the government is deliberately paralysing the judiciary to ensure that the trials are halted to pave way for the high-profile suspects to eventually appear before a proposed National Peace and Unity Commission which will consider pardoning them if they testify “truthfully” and “show remorse” for their crimes.

The establishment of the Commission is provided for under the National Peace and Unity Bill which is yet to be approved by parliament. The TRC is vehemently opposed to the Bill, arguing that it is meant to shield politicians and members of the security agencies from being held accountable for gross human rights violations over the years.

In a statement this week, the TRC called on the government to desist from its “stunts” aimed at derailing the trials and ensure the renewal of Justice Hungwe’s contract by the JSC. His salary is paid by the European Union (EU) which has said it is prepared to continue paying him for as long as it takes to finalise his cases.

He has the huge task of presiding over several high-profile trials by himself after the resignation of two Botswana judges, Kabelo Lebotse and Onkemetse Tshosa in May 2020 and August 2021 respectively.

Some of the cases, including the treason and murder trial of politicians, Mothetjoa Metsing and Selibe Mochoboroane; former army commander, Tlali Kamoli and others, have since been allocated to Chief Justice Sakoane Sakoane and other local judges.

Justice Hungwe was left to continue with Lieutenant-General (Lt-Gen) Kamoli and eight other soldiers’ trial for the June 2015 murder of army commander, Maaparankoe Mahao.

He is the presiding judge in Lt-Gen Kamoli and four other soldiers’ attempted murder trial in connection with the January 2014 simultaneous bombings of the houses of former First Lady, ‘Maesaiah Thabane, and former Police Commissioner, Khothatso Tšooana.

He is expected to preside over the trial of Senior Superintendent Thabo Tšukulu and three other police officers for the March 2016 murder of Police Constable (PC) Mokalekale Khetheng.

All these trials are now in limbo due to the failure to renew his contract ahead of its 31 October 2021 expiry date.

This is unacceptable, according to the TRC, which considers the failure to renew his contract a ploy by the government to derail the trials.

“Cognisant of the fact that the latest episode threatening the progress of the trials is the expiration of Justice Charles Hungwe’s contract on 31 October 2021, it is worth reminding the whole world that appearing before Justice Hungwe are soldiers accused of the gruesome killing of their former commander, Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, whose untimely death led SADC to establish a commission of inquiry,” TRC said this week.

“The security, political and constitutional crises developed and reached climax during Lieutenant General (Tlali) Kamoli’s command. It was during his command that the army committed crimes like torture where those accused of mutiny were subjected to cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment for which he has not been charged to date.

“In light of the above, the TRC is of the considered position that justice delayed is justice denied. This legal maxim means that cases should be heard without unnecessary delays as this would lead to great injustice to the accused person, psychologically and financially. The TRC further holds that prolonged delays in hearing criminal matters have a severe impact on victims and their families, financially and mentally. The Centre wishes to remind the government of Lesotho that the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time is a right guaranteed by the constitution of Lesotho.”

The TRC then accuses the government of pulling stunts to derail the high-profile trials.

“The Centre notes that one of the stunts pulled by government to frustrate the trials relates to inadequate funding and assistance to the judiciary by the government. Lack of funding continues to paralyse the functioning of the courts and has placed intense pressure on the courts…

“The Centre is of a well-thought-out opinion that the current developments which have led to the resignations and expiration of judges’ contracts should have been foreseen by a government which cares about justice and rule of law. The very existence of the judicial branch has become endangered by the inadequate assistance from the two other branches of government (parliament and the executive), risking a collapse of the tripartite structure. The Centre wishes to emphasise that a functional and efficient judiciary is an urgent community need.

“…With a heavy heart, TRC notes that the current episode involving Justice Hungwe adds to an ocean of judicial problems resulting from inadequate assistance from the political branches. It is the Centre’s earnest wish that the judiciary is not set up for failure by the government in order to justify transitional justice commission which politicians seek in order to have guaranteed impunity (sic).”

The TRC then urged the government to urgently resolve the judiciary’s financial challenges “to ensure a fair and just system where justice is served on both the accused and the victims”.

“The government better be advised that justice and accountability for the tyranny, lawlessness and terror that reigned and gripped this nation cannot be sabotaged by its ineffectiveness and failure to assist the judiciary,” the TRC states.

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