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Released by SouthernDefenders

“They have intended to hurt us, to break our spirit, our moral strength and crash our resilience so that we succumb to their evil desires.” Excerpt from an open letter from prison written by Thulani Maseko in 2015.

As SouthernDefenders, we express our pain and outrage at the brazen murder of renowned human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, who was gunned down at point blank range in front of his wife and children, at his home in Luhleko, Mbabane, on the evening of 21 January, 2023. This atrocious, cowardly, and cold-blooded act came a few hours after King Mswati III had issued ‘stern warnings’ to those calling for democratic reforms in the country, saying that his hired mercenaries would deal with them.

At the time of his death, Maseko was a practicing lawyer, a senior member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, and the current chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a convergence of various stakeholders calling for constitutional reforms in Eswatini. Maseko was one of the founding members of the Southern Africa Defenders Human Rights Network (SouthernDefenders). He contributed immensely to the promotion of justice and human rights not only in Eswatini but also in the Southern African region.

SouthernDefenders is deeply concerned that the killing of Maseko is a deliberate targeting and silencing of the lawyer and human rights defender in direct retaliation for his work.

Since May 2021, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchs has been rocked by nationwide protests in demand of democratic reforms, and an end to his excessive opulence in the face of one of the region’s poorest economies. In response, the government of Eswatini, led by Mswati III, has responded with excessive force against protesters, arbitrary arrests and detention, the shutdown of the internet, and blanket bans on protests. 

More than 80 people have been killed, 200 plus injured, and thousands of others arrested and detained. Currently, two Members of Parliament have been arbitrarily detained for 18 months, facing criminal prosecution under the Suppression of Terrorism Act in relation to the protests. SouthernDefenders has directly received reports of lawyers and judges being harassed, threatened and intimidated for their real or suspected support of the ongoing pro-democracy movement. Just last month, SouthernDefenders assisted one human rights lawyer who narrowly escaped death after gunshots were fired at his car. He was forced into exile like many others fearing for their lives have recently done.

Despite the attempts by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to mediate a resolution to the crisis, Mswati III has ignored the pleas of citizens, opposition politicians, civil society, and the regional and international community, and instead escalated the crackdown on dissenting voices. Most recently, the government was accused of hiring mercenaries to assist its security forces in suppressing opposition voices. Credible reports indicate that mercenaries wearing baklavas are working alongside state security forces, and manning roadblocks in the country.

The existence of mercenaries in the country and the chilling remarks made by Mswati point to a state sponsored assassination of Maseko. 

Defender of democracy

As a human rights lawyer, Maseko worked tirelessly to advance democracy, rule of law and good governance in Eswatini. Maseko particularly fought against the undermining of the independence of the Swazi judiciary, the weaponisation of the law and courts to restrict civic space, and the crackdown on legitimate opponents of the Mswati monarchy and its enablers.

In 2014, he was arbitrarily arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to two years in prison, following the publication of opinion articles denouncing the lack of judicial independence. During his detention he was subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, including being placed in solitary confinement as deliberate punishment for his publications which he continued from prison. In 2016, he together with The Nation and its editor, faced a civil defamation instituted by a then acting judge of the Supreme Court. Despite repeatedly being targeted and suffering at the hands of the state, Maseko continued to be a vocal critic of corruption, abuse of the law, and violation of human rights in Eswatini. He was a leading human rights lawyer who represented many human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in Eswatini, who were dragged before the courts on politically trumped-up charges. In 2021, he was one of the early legal representatives of the currently detained Members of Parliament. 

“Thulani was a brave human rights defender who fought for justice and paid a personal price. The regime arbitrarily detained him and sent him to jail for two years and yet, immediately upon his release, he continued fighting for human rights and the rule of law,” said Prof Adriano Nuvunga, vice-chairperson of SouthernDefenders. “The killing of Thulani serves as a strong reminder of the increasing threat against those who dare to speak out against the last absolute monarchy in the world.”

Throughout his life, Maseko remained steadfast in the fight for freedom and justice for the people of Eswatini. Many will attest that Maseko persistently preached the message of peace and love. He spoke courageously against the injustices suffered by the people of Eswatini and paid the ultimate price with his life in this gruesome and callous murder.

“A staunch believer in the rule of law and constitutionalism, Maseko used his professional legal skills to advocate for democratic reforms and peaceful transition. It is deeply saddening that his work and selfless dedication has been repaid by such a ruthless and callous act.” continued Nuvunga. 

Calling for accountability

We therefore call upon SADC to uphold Article 4 of the Treaty of the Southern Africa Development Community which states that the principles guiding the acts of its members are human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Article 5 of the treaty requires all states to promote the common political values and systems transmitted through the institutions, provided that they are democratic, legitimate and effective.

The state of affairs in Eswatini is a clear reflection of the failure of the country’s leadership to defend and maintain peace, security and transparency for its citizens. It is terrifying to observe the monarchy clamp down on its own people by mercilessly slaughtering those whom it is meant to serve and protect. SouthernDefenders reminds Eswatini that as a member state of SADC, its government should comply with the principles and guidelines to which the region is bound. The perpetrators of the killings need to be brought to book as the rule of law pertains to all citizens.

We demand that the leadership of King Mswati III give an account of the brutal violence that continues to torment the people of Eswatini through the use of state machinery. The leadership must account for the intimidation and harassment of lawyers for doing their professional duty in representing those who are critical of King Mswati III and advocating for political reforms.

As SouthernDefenders, we reassert our support for and uncompromising solidarity with the people of Eswatini and we also wish to express our heartfelt condolences to Maseko’s wife Tanele, their children, the Maseko family, and the human rights community in Eswatini. His unshaken commitment for the achievement of justice and freedom will be our beacon for all time.

SouthernDefenders strongly urges the Eswatini government to:

  • Immediately allow for an internationally supported, thorough, independent and expeditious investigation into the circumstances of the killing of Thulani Maseko to ensure full accountability.
  • Immediately allow for an inclusive political dialogue to usher a democratic dispensation in Eswatini.
  • Refrain from engaging hired mercenaries, to carry tasks which are constitutionally preserved for the nations designated police forces. Mercenaries currently in Eswatini must immediately vacate.
  • Release all political prisoners and refrain from the excessive use of force to disperse protestors and from the arbitrary arrest of peaceful protestors and those expressing opposing views.
  • Immediately end the violent rhetoric against pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders.

SouthernDefenders calls on SADC to:

  • Immediately set up a task force or oversight mechanism to ensure thoroughly and independently investigate the arbitrarily killings of Thualani Maseko and all other pro-democracy activists in Eswatini, that have taken place since 2021.
  • Robustly engage with King Mswati III and his government, opposition and civil society leaders, and other relevant stakeholders in and outside Eswatini to urgently broker an end to the ongoing political crisis and the ushering in of democratic reforms.
  • Hold King Mswati III and the government of Eswatini accountable for the ongoing gross violations of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, excessive use of force against protesters, and extra-judicial killings of activists.
  • Evoke Article 4 of the treaty, which clearly stipulates the principles that guide the acts of member states.
  • Evoke Article 5 of the treaty, which states the objectives of SADC and emphasises that member states promote common political systems and values.
  • Ensure the government of Eswatini respects, protect, and fulfil human rights according to international and regional human rights law and standards as set out in the African Charter for Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

For further enquiries please contact:

o   Washington Katema, Director: (+27 73 620 2608)

o   Simphiwe Sidu, Regional Legal Advisor: (+27 76 675 8168)

Robert Mwanyumba
Africa Regional Advocacy Coordinator and Regional Advisor – Southern Africa

Transparency International: Alt-Moabit 96, 10559 Berlin, Germany: Phone: +49 1573 8016544,