Lesotho’s Prime Minister, Tom Thabane, has signed papers suspending parliament for three months. He cited the coronavirus pandemic to explain his decision. Ironically, a full-on legal application contesting the validity of his COVID-19-based decision was heard in a virtually empty court due to steps aimed at containing spread of the disease. But the case also marked a significant step for the country’s broadcaster which, for the first time, carried a court hearing live on national television and radio.
Lesotho’s current political bosses – and the country’s economy – have been dealt a new blow. The high court of Lesotho, sitting as a constitutional court, has ruled that plans for dealing with repayment of generous government-guaranteed loans made to two categories of officials, are discriminatory and unconstitutional. Everyone who was given such a loan will now have to be treated in the same way, with the government paying all remaining loans back to the bank, in full. The court also made a strong but unexpected call for constitutional changes that would ‘more meaningfully’ separate the legislature from the executive. The three judges further complained about the escalating number of cases that came before the courts challenging the validity of regulations. It was so bad that the judiciary was justified in feeling sceptical about whether parliament did its work properly in overseeing such regulations, the court said.
The Acting Chief Justice of Lesotho, the woman who recently brought a hall full of African judges to their feet with applause as she explained the difficult circumstances under which judges and magistrates in that country operate, is on notice that she is fighting for her professional life. Judge Maseforo Mahase says ‘powerful forces’ in Lesotho want her impeached. Though three local judges have been appointed to hear the case that will decide whether an impeachment tribunal should be set up to investigate allegations against her, she says the three – plus the entire high court bench of judges – should recuse themselves and that foreign judges should be asked to hear the matter.
When Judge Charles Hungwe from Zimbabwe arrived in Lesotho earlier this year to start work on a series of controversial trials, he was given a warm reception in the local media. But matters have changed since then with the accused in some of the cases over which he was due to preside proving rather less than welcoming. In fact, 16 accused due to stand trial before him have brought an application for his appointment – and the appointment of all other foreign judges who might hear the pending cases – to be declared unconstitutional. The 16 accused were led by Lesotho’s former defence minister, Tseliso Mokhosi. Their ultimately unsuccessful application was based on the argument that the foreign judges had been appointed with the connivance of the executive, to ensure the conviction of the accused and their harshest possible punishment, even the possible death penalty. The court however dismissed these allegations as “scurrilous” and “deplorable”, and found that the executive had not acted improperly.
A number of controversial murder trials are about to get under way in Lesotho, presided over by foreign judges to ensure the cases are seen to be fairly conducted and without bias to either side. The murders allegedly involve high-ranking figures from the country’s politicians, army and police as victims and/or assassins. The first cases were due to start last week under Jifa alum Judge Charles Hungwe of Zimbabwe, but they were delayed due to the absence of the defence lawyers for the accused. Other foreign judges are due to arrive in Lesotho soon, to share the load of the trials with Judge Hungwe.