MASERU — When Macaefa Billy, the opposition All Basotho Convention (ABC) party’s secretary-general, entered the gates to the Palace of Justice on Friday his future was uncertain.
With the Court of Appeal set to deliver judgment on the state’s appeal against his High Court acquittal on sedition and subversion charges Billy was obviously not at ease.
Even the moral support of the ABC faithful, friends and relatives did not seem to offer much comfort.
His political career was on the line and his freedom probably on the verge of ending that day.
His lawyer, Haae Phofoolo, had told him earlier not to worry too much about the case but Billy feared for the worst.
Apprehensively, Billy went into court.
And to his biggest relief, the worst did not happen.
When he walked out of the Palace of Justice he was a free and jubilant man.There was more to be celebrated than his personal freedom.
On Friday afternoon Lesotho’s Court of Appeal delivered a landmark judgment that is likely to change the way political parties and politicians express their discontent with the government.
Legal experts say its implications on the freedom of expression and speech are far-reaching.
In dismissing the crown’s appeal, the Court of Appeal delivered what might turn out to be the judgment that signalled the beginning of the demise of Lesotho’s 70-year-old sedition law.
In freeing a single person some judgments free a country as well, even though that might not be their intention in the first place.
This judgment has done just that.
It has set a strong legal precedence for other sedition cases that might be heard in court for years to come.
Justice JA Farlam ruled that the speech that Billy gave soon after the February 2007 election was neither seditious nor did it have subversive intent.
He said Billy had “satisfactorily explained his statement that his aim was not to fight for seats”.
“The speech was after all made in the course of an election campaign and its purpose was to criticise the leader of a party competing with the alliance for votes of the electorate in the Makhaleng constituency,” said Justice Farlam.
He said Billy’s statement that the country’s political problems would not be solved by dialogue “was merely indicative of the respondent’s pessimistic belief that the round table discussions convened by the Sadc troika would not solve the problems of the country”.
With regards to Billy’s criticism of the Independent Electoral Commission, Justice Farlam said the “path of criticism is a public way in which even the wrong-headed are entitled to wander provided they act bona-fide”.
“The respondent’s criticism of the Independent Electoral Commission may well have been unfounded and ‘wrong-headed’ but in the absence of a suggestion that it was not made in good faith it is difficult to see how it can bring the crown home in this matter,” he said.
“The respondent’s reference to people ‘running in towns, young and old, sweating, getting rid of a person who has become the stumbling block’, colourful though it is, is not inconsistent with his suggestion that he envisaged his supporters going to Maseru in a demonstration, carrying petitions for the removal of the prime minister.”
Justice Farlam said that statement did not “necessarily indicate that unlawful conduct was envisaged for immediately thereafter he urged his followers to go to Maseru “properly” and “lawfully”.
“Counsel for the Director of Prosecutions (appellant) did not suggest that if the appeal against the acquittal on the main count failed, the result would be different on the alternative count.”
Judge Farlam added: “Accordingly the appeal is dismissed.”
After the ruling a relieved Billy told the Sunday Express that he had always believed that his trial was politically motivated.
The state, he said, did not have a case from the onset.
“It was just politics characterised by misuse of public funds to charge me falsely,” Billy said.
“The Court of Appeal has vindicated me.”
Had he been convicted of sedition, Billy would have been liable to a fine of M200 or two years in prison.
He would have been stripped of his parliamentary seat and banned from running for any political office for five years.
That would have meant he would not be eligible to run in the 2012 elections.
A conviction on the subversion charge would have sent him to prison for not less than five years.