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.

A string of controversial murder trials is about to get under way in Lesotho, under several foreign judges chosen to ensure that the cases are seen as unbiased.

Judge Charles Hungwe from Zimbabwe was the first of the judges to arrive in Lesotho late January. He has responsibility for drawing up the roll of cases for each of the foreign judges to hear. The cases are particularly sensitive because they involve senior military and political figures, either as victims or as assassins – or both.

Some of the cases date back a number of years but because of the alleged complicity of high-ranking members of government and/or members of the military and police, the trials have been delayed by repeated changes in government.

The cases in Lesotho, which are being heard in the high court, Maseru, got off to a slow start. In the first trial, where eight soldiers are to be charged with the murder of an army general in 2015,  the defence team did not arrive in court. According to reports in the local media, Judge Hungwe said that the accused would have to be allowed to choose other legal representatives if their lawyers continued their “no show” in court.

Prosecuting counsel described the absence of the legal team representing the accused as an insult to the court, adding that the lawyers concerned had been aware of the dates set for the hearing.

Their absence was “a great disrespect to the court, their clients, the administration of justice and the rule of law,” he said. The case was extremely significant to the people of Lesotho and to the international community “who want to see justice and the rule of law being applied.”

The missing lawyers also failed to turn up for a case in which they were due to represent a number of accused charged with multiple murders.

Both cases were postponed.

Appointed to the bench in 2000 by Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, Judge Hungwe has acted in Lesotho previously. He has a record of delivering independent decisions in Zimbabwe. For example, he allowed that country’s anti-corruption commission a warrant to search the offices of three cabinet ministers belonging to the ruling Zanu-PF party.

He also made headlines in his home country after he ordered that prominent human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, had to be released from prison – a sensational decision at the time.

On the other hand, some disappointment has been expressed in relation to certain decisions he made in the run-up to last year’s general elections in Zimbabwe. These were judgments responding to cases brought by applicants who were trying to ensure greater democracy and more transparency at the polls. One of these, for example, related to an application by a visually impaired voter for ballot papers, printed in braille, to be available during the elections. Judge Hungwe, however, rejected the application on the grounds that the election commission had the matter in hand and had promised that “measures” would be taken to facilitate voting by visually-impaired voters.

  • Newsletter, Judicial Institute for Africa (Jifa), 31 January 2019