SLAIN army commander, Maaparankoe Mahao’s widow, ‘Mamphanya Mahao, and other victims of human rights atrocities have spoken of their anguish at the lack of progress in bringing the killers of their loved ones to justice.
They have bemoaned the “deliberate failures” by successive governments and the judiciary to expedite the trials of high-profile suspects accused of murdering their loved ones.
In no-holds barred and emotionally charged interviews with the Lesotho Times this week, Ms Mahao and fellow victims spoke of the pain and suffering they have endured due to the slow pace of trying suspects seven years after the Southern African Development Community (SADC) recommended prosecutions of the high-profile suspects who include former army commander, Tlali Kamoli, and former Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing.
The victims slammed Chief Justice Sakaone Sakoane for his January 2022 statements suggesting that the high-profile trials could be thrown out and the suspects freed due to the lengthy delays in trying them. Justice Sakoane said this despite clear evidence of the trials being delayed by the Stalingrad tactics of the suspects of ubiquitously filing frivolous applications to delay their trials in the hope of getting a sympathetic government elected to let them off the hook.
The victim families also accused the previous Thomas Thabane and Moeketsi Majoro administrations of seeking to derail the trials and freeing suspects by cobbling the infamous 2018 Clause 10 agreement with the opposition as well as seeking to pass the still-born and discredited National Peace and Unity Bill respectively.
Tabled in parliament in April 2021 by then Law and Justice Minister Lekhetho Rakuoane, the Bill proposed the establishment of a National Peace and Unity Commission with powers to grant high-profile criminal suspects amnesty provided they testified truthfully, disclosed their crimes in full and showed remorse. The Bill suffered a still-birth after widespread backlash that unsettled politicians ahead of the 7 October 2022 general elections.
In gripping interviews this week, the victims also lambasted the head of the SADC facilitation team to Lesotho, Dikgang Moseneke, for allegedly deliberately avoiding them while fraternising with politicians whenever he came to Lesotho as part of his mediation efforts. They vowed to press on for justice despite the “huge odds” seemingly staked against them. They said they were pinning their hopes on the new Sam Matekane-led government to avail human and material resources to enable the trials to be expedited and prosecuted to finality.
They spoke against the background of weekend reports by the Sunday Express that the criminal justice system had ground to a halt amid revelations that the judiciary had no money to pay the prosecutors and pro deo lawyers representing indigent suspects.
Due to the judiciary’s financial woes, there are no guarantees that some of the high-profile trials that have been postponed to the first half of 2023, including that of Lt-Gen Mahao’s murder, will proceed at all when that time comes. The lead prosecutor in the high-profile trials, Shaun Abrahams, and his team of prosecutors have not been paid their dues and will not return to the cases until they are paid.
The latest postponements are meant to allow the pro deo lawyers representing all the accused soldiers to settle their dispute with the government over non-payment of their fees.
The Mahao trial is before Judge Charles Hungwe. It was supposed to have proceeded last month but this failed twice after the defence lawyers informed Justice Hungwe that they could not continue representing their clients until the government paid their outstanding fees.
The judiciary’s financial woes were also laid bare by High Court, Judge Molefi Makara, who was presiding over jailed murderer, Lehlohonolo Scott’s application for an order to compel High Court and Court of Appeal registrar, ‘Mathato Sekoai, to get him a pro deo lawyer to represent him in his quest to overturn his conviction and sentence.
Speaking on Scott’s application last week, Justice Makara said the judiciary was broke and therefore the convicted murderer should bear with Adv Sekoai as she tries to source funding which will not only cover his legal costs but also pay pro deo lawyers in other cases.
Unsurprisingly, the latest postponement of the high-profile trials to next year has not been well received by the victims, among them, Lt-Gen Mahao’s widow, ‘Mamphanya.
Kamoli and eight other soldiers are accused of murdering her husband on 25 June 2015 in Mokema, Maseru. They are also accused of the attempted murder of Lt-Gen Mahao’s nephews, Mahao Mahao and Mabilikoe Leuta, by shooting at a vehicle in which they were passengers.
They are accused of damaging Lt-Gen Mahao’s vehicle, a white Nissan truck, by firing at it with an automatic rifle. Kamoli is also accused of the theft of Lt-Gen Mahao’s 9mm pistol and Samsung Galaxy mobile phone.
Kamoli’s co-accused are Captain Litekanyo Nyakane, Captain Haleo Makara, Sergeant Lekhooa Moepi, Sergeant Motsamai Fako, Corporal Marasi ‘Moleli, Corporal Motšoane Machai, Corporal Mohlalefi Seitlheko and Corporal Tšitso Ramoholi. Their trial was last week postponed to March 2023.
Speaking on the issue this week, Ms Mahao told the Lesotho Times that the lengthy delay in finalising the trial of her husband’s alleged killers had taken its toll on her and the rest of the family.
“We were realistic enough and understood that a trial of this nature would never be finalised within a short space of time,” Ms Mahao said.
“However, we hadn’t imagined it would take this long. My husband was killed seven years ago and the delay (in trying the suspects) is really painful.
“From the very onset, we observed a lack of commitment by the successive governments to have all the high-profile trials finalised. In 2018, the (Thabane-led) government forged the Clause 10 agreement with the opposition to stop the prosecutions of the perpetrators (at least until the reforms had been implemented) but we successfully challenged that agreement in court. Not long afterwards, the successor (Majoro) government came up with a Bill for a Truth and Justice Commission to pardon those who killed our loved ones and this was done without our input as victims,” she added.
Ms Mahao is unhappy with what she views as the judiciary’s lack of interest in finalising the high-profile trials. She is particularly displeased with Justice Sakoane for threatening to stop the trials and free the suspects due to lengthy delays by the prosecution to bring their cases to court.
Justice Sakoane had in January this year threatened to dismiss the treason and murder trial of Kamoli and others and free them. He said the Crown was unprepared for the trial. This after the prosecutor, Adv Abrahams, had failed to appear in court due to other commitments in his native South Africa.
“These people (Kamoli and other soldiers) have been in jail for five years and are in their sixth year now. I am told Mr Abrahams is busy making money in South Africa. I am not going to postpone this matter. If the Crown is not ready to proceed, I am going to dismiss it,” Justice Sakoane said at the time.
Speaking on the issue, Ms Mahao said, “The judiciary has not shown any seriousness in finalising these matters.
“Worst of all, we were shocked to the marrow when a whole Chief Justice threatened to stop the high-profile trials.
“In some instances, the trials have failed to proceed due to the non-availability of witnesses. There is a real possibility that the longer the delays continue, we will get to a stage where there are no witnesses at all due to their deaths or other reasons. This weekend, we will burying someone who was supposed to testify in my husband’s murder case.
“The trial itself has been moved to March next year but we are uncertain if it will continue because there is the issue of prosecutors and lawyers who need to be paid. This issue of the judiciary’s supposed lack of funds is very puzzling. We do not believe that there is no money because when it suits those in power, the money is suddenly available but when it comes to other issues, we are told there is no money.”
Ms Mahao also lambasted the judiciary and the previous Majoro administration for going back on the Thabane government’s commitment to have all the high-profile trials conducted by foreign judges.
She said it was “surprising” that the cases had been reallocated to local judges “when SADC had been very clear that they should be heard by foreign judges”.
“The same reasons why it was recommended that the cases are heard by foreign judges are still prevailing,” Ms Mahao said in reference to both SADC and the then Thabane government’s argument that foreign judges’ verdicts were less likely to be viewed as biased by the suspects and the victims.
Back in 2018 the Thabane administration and the judiciary approached SADC, saying foreign judges were needed to ensure impartiality and judgements that would not be disputed by both suspects and victims.
With the help of the regional body, the government and the judiciary secured the services of Zimbabwean Judge, Charles Hungwe and his Botswana counterparts, Kabelo Lebotse and Onkemetse Tshosa.
However, Justices Lebotse and Tshosa resigned in May 2020 and August 2021 respectively, complaining of poor working conditions, among other things. They were also unhappy about the delaying tactics deployed by the suspects to stall the trials.
Their resignations left Justice Hungwe with the gargantuan task of presiding over some of the high-profile trials by himself.
Both Adv Rakuoane and Justice Sakoane are not fans of foreign judges. They are on record saying local judges and prosecutors are just as competent to try and prosecute the high-profile trials respectively. Despite public assurances by the European Union (EU) embassy in Lesotho of its commitment to continue funding Justice Hungwe’s salary and its pledge to fund the recruitment of another foreign judge, the previous Majoro government did not take up the latter offer.
Instead the judiciary has allocated some of the high-profile trials to local judges. Justice Sakoane had himself, taken over the treason and murder trial of Kamoli and others. He only let go of the case after the Court of Appeal granted the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Hlalefang Motinyane’s application for his recusal from the case. The DPP had argued that he was unlikely to bring an impartial mind when adjudicating over the case. This after the top judge’s highly publicised fallout with the DPP and lead prosecutor, Adv Abrahams, whom he had even banned from prosecuting the trial without citing any authority that empowered him to do so.
Ms Mahao said in as much as they had encountered obstacles in the pursuit of justice for their loved ones, all the victims had no intentions of giving up.
She said they were pinning their hopes on the newly minted Matekane administration to provide the necessary resources to expedite the trials.
“We will not give up. As much as the delays and postponements pain us, we will soldier on. We will fight for justice, we did not start now and we will not stop.
“The government must level the playing field for justice to be served. They should pay the defence lawyers their monies so that the cases can continue. The duty of the government is to allocate funds; therefore we are pinning our hopes on this new government to fund the judiciary so that the trials can proceed for us to get justice,” Ms Mahao said.
The Ramahlokos’ pain
The slain army commander’s widow is not alone in her pain. Her concerns about the slow pace of the trials is shared by other victims, including the families of slain police officers, Sub-Inspector Mokheseng Ramahloko and Police Constable (PC), Mokalekale Khetheng.
Police Senior Superintendent Thabo Tšukulu and three others have been charged with the March 2016 murder of PC Khetheng. Senior Supt Tšukulu’s co-accused are Superintendent Mathibeli Mofolo, Inspector Mabitle Matona and PC Haleokoe Taasoane.
Kamoli, Mr Metsing and current Health minister Selibe Mochoboroane have been charged with the 30 August 2014 murder of Sub-Inspector Ramahloko.
Their co-accused are Captain Litekanyo Nyakane and Lance Corporals Motloheloa Ntsane and Leutsoa Motsieloa.
Although the Khetheng and Ramahloko cases have been set down for 28 November 2022, it is highly unlikely that they will proceed because the pro deo defence lawyers are still holding out for the payment of their fees by the judiciary.
Just like Ms Mahao, the Ramahloko family is pained by the lengthy delay in trying Sub-Insp Ramahloko’s alleged killers. The slain police officer’s brother, Mosito Ramahloko, and his widow, also poured out their grief to the Lesotho Times this week.
“We had hoped that justice would be served during Kamoli’s time as army commander (when the crimes were committed) but we got no help,” said Mr Ramahloko who was flanked by his sister-in-law and Ms Mahao.
“When the Thabane government came to power in 2017, we had high hopes that we would finally get justice but this was not to be. As bereaved families, we wrote several letters but we got no answers from the Thabane government and the (Pakalitha) Mosisili administration which preceded it. The perpetrators were arrested in 2017 during Thabane’s rein but he shocked us when his government signed the Clause 10 agreement (in 2018 to stop the high-profile trials).”
Mr Ramahloko expressed his disappointment at what he said was an uncaring judiciary. Just like Ms Mahao, he fears that the much-postponed trials might not even proceed at all.
“Right now, we are scared that these cases might be struck off the roll and some of the witnesses will end up dying or being unavailable for different reasons.
“The cases have dragged for far too long and in all honestly, this is a very disappointing kind of justice we are getting for the loss of our loved ones. People are slowly losing interest in these cases and eventually SADC and the EU, which is currently funding Judge Hungwe’s salary, will also lose interest,” Mr Ramahloko said.
Mr Ramahloko said the delays in prosecuting the trials had taken serious emotional tolls on them as they wanted closure to enable them to move on with their lives. He said they were unhappy with SADC and Lesotho’s international development partners’ apparent failure to pressure previous governments to expedite the trials.
He reserved his venom for the head of the SADC facilitation team to Lesotho, Justice Moseneke. He accused Justice Moseneke, a retired former deputy South African chief justice, of allegedly repeatedly ignoring them and instead dealing with politicians during his mediation efforts.
Consequently, they had lost confidence in Justice Moseneke, he said.
“Emotionally, this issue is very draining; we’re very angry because of the stress these cases are causing us. We are even afraid to make noise about the failure to finalise these cases because we fear that anything can happen to us any day.
“We’ve completely lost hope in our justice system which is failing us. We’ve lost hope in SADC and Moseneke because we feel that he wanted to push us aside. He has been coming into the country meeting other parties involved in these cases expect us, the victims. It was only during one of his visits when we forced him to meet us.
“These (murdered) people were the breadwinners and they were murdered by government officials. All the promises that were made to us by previous governments have not been fulfilled. So, we want compensation,” Mr Ramahloko said.
Glimmer of hope
Like Ms Mahao, he said the advent of Mr Matekane’s government had given them “a glimmer of hope” that they could well get justice in the end.
“The delays in the trials were actually caused by the accused persons. I believe they were banking on the Democratic Congress (DC) winning power and freeing them afterwards. The formation of the ruling Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) was therefore a blessing in disguise for us. Still, it is disappointing that the trials are being postponed for petty reasons by people who want to buy time. What is frustrating is that SADC and other development partners are mum on the issue,” he said.
Sub-Inspector Ramahloko’s widow, ‘Mamonaheng Ramahloko, echoed her brother-in-law’s frustrations.
“We have written to previous governments numerous times but they ignored us. We haven’t got justice and that is very frustrating. We will also petition the new government if there’s no movement on the trials,” Ms Ramahloko said.
In a telephonic interview, the slain PC Khetheng’s brother, Mabula Khetheng, accused previous administrations and the judiciary of failing them. Like other victims, he said his family would never give up the fight for justice.
“The frequent postponements of the trials is not good at all. We want justice for my brother. What is most painful is that we had pinned our hopes on previous governments which kept failing us dismally. We wonder whether they were deliberately frustrating the cases to protect their own who were implicated.
“I wish we could prosecute the cases privately but we have to wait on the state. If the government wants, it can just halt all criminal proceedings by just declaring bankruptcy. We’ve heard of plans to stop the trials and it is our sincere hope that the new government will pay all lawyers involved for the trials to be finalised. We hope the lack of funds will not be used as an excuse to stop the trials for good,” Mr Khetheng said.