2 critics of Swaziland government sentenced

July 26, 2014 - 8:05 AM

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Two government critics in Swaziland have been sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of contempt of court for publishing articles lamenting alleged threats to judicial independence in the southern African kingdom.

The sentencing Friday of lawyer Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, editor of Swaziland's The Nation magazine, drew criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights groups, which described the ruling as an attack on freedom of expression.

Maseko, who studied law at American University's Washington College of Law, and Makhubu were found guilty on July 17. In their articles, they criticized the prosecution of a government vehicle inspector who was arrested after impounding a vehicle used by a top judge. Their articles angered Swazi officials who accused them of slander.

Swaziland is ruled by King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch. Many observers say the country's parliamentary system is designed to preserve royal power, though the small, poor kingdom of about 1 million people attracts little international attention.

During his trial, Maseko delivered a blistering attack on the Swazi judiciary and political system, saying the population was being treated with contempt.

In his ruling, Judge Mpendulo Simelane said the "scurrilous articles" by Maseko and Makhubu amounted to a "defiance campaign" aimed at tarnishing the justice system, according to a text of the ruling reported by Swazi media and lawyers.

"The courts have an obligation to discourage such conduct in the interest of the stability of our country," said Simelane in his ruling, adding that lawyer Maseko's conduct was "a disgrace to the profession."

The 2-year sentence will be backdated to March, when Maseko and Makhubu were jailed, according to the ruling.

During the sentencing, there was a heavy police presence in and around the courthouse in Mbabane, the Swazi capital, said Maseko's wife, Tenele. Defense lawyers are considering whether to appeal, she said.

Thulani Maseko is in good spirits because he believes his case will make people more aware of the human rights situation in Swaziland, Tenele Maseko said. She acknowledged, however, that political change could take a long time.