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8 cops acquitted of chief’s murder

Nat Molomo

MASERU — The eight police officers streamed into the courtroom on the warn Friday morning, their faces looking sullen.
They were not there to witness a trial but to hear the court’s verdict in a case in which they were accused of killing the Principal Chief of Phamong, Bereng Bereng, in March 2002.
Silently, they sat in the dock waiting for the court to decide their fate.
On the previous day the crown had concluded its case after calling eight witnesses but defense lawyer, Advocate Zwelakhe Mda, had immediately made an application for acquittal on grounds that the prosecution has failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
Justice Thamsanqa Nomngcngo had promised to make a ruling on the application on Friday.
That is why Rantoane Motsoetla, Moeketsi Mallela, Mbuezelo Badela, Matete Lerotholi, Lebohang Ntja-Ntja, Limpho Mahloane, Tsietsi Maseela and Cheka Mabote were not at easy.
Today was their D-day.
For nine years, the eight officers who are detectives with the police’s Counter Crime Unit (CCU) had anxiously waited for this day.
That day had finally arrived.
On the bench lay a file containing a ruling that would decide whether the officers would be jailed or acquitted.
At around 11 am Justice Nomngcngo entered the court to deliver his judgment.
As the judge gave a brief background on the case it soon emerged that he was heading for a “not guilty” verdict.
Two of the crown’s witnesses, Justice Nomngcngo said, could not positively place the accused on the crime scene.
The judge said the witnesses could not categorically state that the accused were present when Chief Bereng was shot dead during a gun battle with police officers from the CCU at the Lesotho Distance Teaching Centre (LDTC) in Maseru.
“We have accused here but the court does not know who to ask to place the accused on the scene of crime to close the gap left by the crown,” the judge said.
“The duty rests on the crown to prove the case against the accused. The accused cannot be asked to place themselves at the scene.”
“The application for discharge is granted, and the accused are found not guilty and discharged.” With those words Justice Nomngcngo retired to his chambers leaving behind eight relieved police officers and a seemingly stunned prosecutor.
Maseela, one of the accused, told the Lesotho Times that he was happy that the case was over.
“We are relieved that this case is over,” Maseela said after the judgment.
“The case has dragged on since 2002 but now we are relieved because it has been hanging over us for all these years.”
In the end the case had boiled down to the quality of the testimonies from the crown witnesses.
The court heard that on the fateful day, one Matooase was travelling with Chief Bereng in a 4×4 twin cab without number plates.
They were in the company of three ladies.
As they passed Lakeside Hotel they were stopped by four men who were travelling in a Mitsubishi Colt 4×4 truck.
It turned out that the four were police officers.
Chief Bereng then reportedly fired shots at the vehicle and drove off, leaving behind an injured policeman.
Later that night, a team of police officers caught up Chief Bereng at the LTDC offices in Maseru. Reinforcements were dispatched to help arrest the chief who by now was involved in a fierce gun battle with the police.
The court heard that at that moment the chief was in the company of two other men.
During the trial the crown had called a police officer, identified only as Serabele, to narrate the events of that day.
Serabele, who was attached to the Criminal Investigation Department’s Homicide, said he received a distress call indicating that a police officer had been shot.
Together with another officer, only identified as Mahoa, they rushed to the LTDC to help apprehend Chief Bereng.
He said when they arrived at the centre the gun battle between the chief and the police had already started.
He however told the court that although he had seen two of the accused, Maseela and Mallela, at the scene he could not recall whether they were armed or not.
Mda argued that during cross-examination Serabele had “conceded that he was mistaken about the identity of Maseela and Mallela”.
He further argued that Serabele could not deny that Mallela came to the scene later because he had taken the injured policeman to hospital after he was injured during the first incident at Lakeside.
“We are contending that the Crown has woefully failed to establish a case against the accused, such that they are entitled at this stage to be saved the agony of protracted trial,” Mda said in application.
“It is clear from the adduced evidence that there were many police vehicles at the scene during the shooting at LDTC,” he said.
This, Mda said, indicated that the court could not say with certainty who had shot Chief Bereng.
Advocate Gareth Leppan appeared for Crown.

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