Court cases backlog

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  •  Thousands languish in custody
  • some criminal cases could be heard as late as 2020

Tsitsi Matope

LESOTHO is sitting on a huge backlog of unresolved criminal and other cases, numbering over 3000, amid revelations that the country’s correctional service facilities, which have been swelled by the arrests of soldiers implicated in murder and other incidents of instability, have been stretched beyond their carrying capacities.

So dire is the situation that Justice and Correctional Service minister, ‘Mahali Phamotse, recently told the Sunday Express that it was highly likely that some of the cases would only be heard in 2020.

The slow finalisation of cases has seen many people remaining on remand in custody for many years.

Murder accused former Lesotho Defence Force Commander (LDF), Tlali Kamoli, alluded to the backlog, when he pleaded with the High Court to grant him bail last month, arguing failure to do so would see him endure a lengthy stay in custody as the backlog was such that his case was not likely to be heard before 2019.

Lt-Gen Kamoli and three LDF members are charged with murdering Sub-Inspector Ramahloko during the 30 August 2014 attempted coup against the first government of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.

The three LDF members are Captain Litekanyo Nyakane (38), Lance Corporal Motloheloa Ntsane (34) and Lance Corporal Leutsoa Motsieloa (31) and awaiting trial at the Maseru Maximum Security Prison.

Lt-Gen Kamoli separately faces 14 counts of attempted murder over the 27 January 2014 simultaneous bombings of the Moshoeshoe II homes of First Lady Maesiah Thabane, ‘Mamoshoeshoe Moletsane and the Ha Abia residence of former police commissioner Khothatso Tšooana.

His bail application was rejected by the High Court on the grounds that there were no exceptional circumstances to warrant his release, as demanded by the law in serious criminal cases such as murder.

Dr Phamotse recently told this publication that there were an estimated 2300 inmates currently locked up in the country’s correctional service facilities- way beyond the facilities’ holding capacity.

She said the demand for maximum correctional service facilities has since increased following the arrest of soldiers implicated in various crimes committed from 2014 to 2017.

There have been several high profile arrests including that of Lt-Gen Kamoli.

His and other soldiers’ incarceration has aggravated the situation in the over-crowded Maseru maximum correctional facilities. The Ministry of Justice is exploring the possibility of utilising the Mohale’s Hoek maximum correctional facilities which are not full.

Dr Phamotse acknowledged the huge backlog and other challenges which comprised the efficient delivery of justice in a recent interview with this publication.

“We have a serious shortage of judges and magistrates, which is why we have a backlog of more than 3000 cases,” Dr Phamotse said, adding, “As we speak, we are setting out cases to be heard in 2019 and 2020”.

“I can understand the national outcry, with some people complaining that our courts are not efficient, they are not delivering the services they are supposed to on time and yes, justice delayed is justice denied.

“Children’s courts, for example, are not given enough attention despite the fact that children are vulnerable and should have separate courts for their cases to be heard on time.”

The minister also noted that due to the low pace of hearing some of the cases, some of these had become even more difficult to resolve as either witnesses, complainants or the accused people had died.

She attributed to the challenges to staff shortages, adding government had prioritised the issue and was taking corrective measures to ensure quicker delivery of justice and ease the congestion crisis in the correctional service facilities.

“We only have 11 judges and countries like Botswana have more judges even though their crime rate is not that high.

“In our districts, we only have 10 magistrates, one for each district. These are not adequate and they are under-resourced.”

She added that the situation was aggravated by the fact that the magistrates and other officials were forced to take on other responsibilities including administrative duties ranging from maintenance to tender and procurement processes, which is not supposed to be the case.

Dr Phamotse however, said government was working to redress the crisis, adding they had approached the European Union (EU) which had agreed to facilitate the recruitment of an additional 10 judges from other countries in the Southern African region.

She said other measures to deal with the backlog included the recent construction of a new High Court in the Leribe district which was expected to start operating soon.

“Through the Leribe Court, we will be able to improve services and help reduce pending cases. We also plan to build another High Court in the southern parts of the country,” Dr Phamotse said.

She further explained that the ministry was also exploring other mechanisms to build the capacity of communities to resolve some conflicts and minor disputes having to approach the courts.

“We would like to collaborate with community-based organisations working to support the development of effective systems that would enable mediation and conflict-resolution at community level.

“This would help to reduce the pressure on the courts by ensuring that some minor civil cases that can easily be resolved through other community-based methods, including through local chiefs and the police are not brought before the courts,” Dr Phamotse said.

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