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Swaziland: UN experts condemn continued detention and trial of human rights defenders

GENEVA (12 June 2014) – A group of United Nations human rights experts today expressed serious concerns at the arrest, detention and prosecution of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and the editor-in-chief of The Nation magazine Bheki Makhubu in Swaziland.

“We condemn the repeated arrests, detention and trial of Mr. Maseko and Mr. Makhubu and are concerned that these may be directly related to their legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” the experts said, noting that the Constitution of the Kingdom of Swaziland recognises the rights to freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial.

Both men were arrested on 17 and 18 March 2014 respectively on charges of criminal contempt of the court for publishing articles in The Nation magazine which questioned the circumstances and rationale of a case pending before the High Court of Swaziland. They were detained after a summary proceeding in the Chief Justice's chambers and were remanded in prison for seven days without appearing before an open court, contrary to the provisions of Swaziland’s Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act.

Mr. Maseko and Mr. Makhubu were released on 6 April following a High Court judgment by Judge Mumcy Dlamini who set aside the initial warrant for their arrest as unconstitutional, unlawful and irregular. They were shortly re-arrested after the Chief Justice lodged an appeal to overturn the High Court judgment. For the past two months, the two men have remained detained at the provisional detention centre of Sidwashini in Mbabane, the capital city of Swaziland.

“The detention and trial of Mr. Maseko and Mr. Makhubu for their exercise of the right to express their opinion on a court case runs contrary to Swaziland’s international human rights obligations, in particular under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue.

“Criminal sanctions, in particular imprisonment, for alleged libel or defamation are not proportional to the effective exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” he noted.

“At a time when the space for human rights defenders is visibly shrinking, we need to be very vigilant with respect to any case where imprisonment may be directly related to individuals’ work in defence of human rights,” added the new Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Michel Forst.

“The right to defend human rights includes the right freely to publish, impart or disseminate views and information on all human rights and fundamental freedoms both in law and in practice,” Mr. Forst said.

Human rights expert Mads Andenas, who currently heads the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, appealed to the Government of Swaziland to “take all necessary measures to guarantee their right not to be deprived arbitrarily of their liberty and their right to fair proceedings before an independent and impartial tribunal.”

The Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul noted that Maseko, as a lawyer, “has the right to take part in public discussions of matters concerning the law and the administration of justice.” “I am also concerned about allegations of lack of due process in the trials of these two men,” she said.

The experts expressed concern that, according to information provided to them, arrest warrants were issued on 16 May for three High Court judges, including High Court Judge Dlamini, for allegedly bringing the High Court into disrepute.

“The independence of the judiciary is a fundamental democratic principle and judges must be protected against any restrictions, improper influence, pressures, threats or interferences, direct or indirect, from any quarter, for any reason,” Ms. Knaul added.

The experts urged the authorities of Swaziland to uphold the independence of the judiciary and ensure that judicial proceedings are conducted fairly and in accordance with the State’s international human rights obligations.

“We also call on the authorities to take immediate measures to ensure everyone’s right to freedom of opinion and expression and to respect the work of human rights defenders,” they added.

The United Nations human rights experts are part of what it is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

They are charged by the Human Rights Council to monitor, report and advise on human rights issues. Currently, there are 37 thematic mandates and 14 mandates related to countries and territories, with 72 mandate holders. Three new mandates were added in March 2014. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx

Freedom of expression: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/OpinionIndex.aspx
Human rights defenders: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx
Arbitrary Detention: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Detention/Pages/WGADIndex.aspx
Independence of judiciary: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Judiciary/Pages/IDPIndex.aspx

OHCHR Country Page – Swaziland: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/SZIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Amanda Flores (+41 22 917 9186 / aflores@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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