FORTY-FIVE soldiers accused of being part of a mutiny plot by the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) command have been granted an indefinite leave of absence to allow them time to decide whether or not they want to continue as members of the security agency.
The 45 were slapped with mutiny charges in 2015 by the LDF which was then under the command of Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli who retired on 1 December 2016.
Twenty-two of the suspected mutineers were arrested and detained at the Maseru Maximum Prison while the rest fled the country between 2014 and 2015.
They were accused of working in cahoots with former army commander, Lt-Gen Maaparankoe Mahao, who was later killed by fellow soldiers in June 2015 while allegedly resisting arrest in Mokema.
Lt-Gen Mahao’s family dismissed the LDF’s claims that he resisted arrest and instead accused the army of killing him in cold blood.
After the killing, the South African Development Community (SADC) established a commission to probe the circumstances surrounding the incident led by the retired Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi of Botswana.
The 10-member commission carried out its investigations between 31 August and 23 October 2015 and concluded that there was no mutiny plot and recommended an amnesty for the suspected mutineers. It also recommended, among other things, that government should investigate Lt-Gen Mahao’s killing and prosecute those found to be responsible.
The suspected mutineers were however, not granted an amnesty, with Dr Mosisili’s administration placing 22 soldiers on open arrest.
The Mosisili regime argued that it could only grant a blanket amnesty for both the suspected mutineers and other soldiers suspected of serious crimes whom the commission wanted to be prosecuted.
The seven-party coalition government was however, ousted in the wake of the 3 June 2017 snap elections which ushered in the current four-party governing coalition headed by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.
Three weeks ago, the government facilitated the safe return of the exiled soldiers and gave them the option of rejoining the army or taking early retirement.
The Defence Ministry’s Principal Secretary, Retired Colonel Tanki Mothae, on Friday, told the Sunday Express that the 45 soldiers were given an indefinite leave of absence from work to enable them to decide on their future.
“We need to be very sensitive when handling this matter as those who were in exile have been separated from their families for a long time and need to be given enough time to reconnect with their families and make sober decisions regarding their future in the army,” Col Mothae said.
“Some of the soldiers want to go back to work while others are no longer interested in going back to work and want to take early retirement,” he said, adding that the first step was to ensure that all the soldiers got proper counselling as they had experienced a lot of trauma.”
He said the reintegration process was slow and arduous, adding that it needed to be handled with care. Col Mothae also indicated that they were working with non-governmental organisations like the Transformation Resource Centre and Christian Council of Lesotho in the process.
Asked if the soldiers were ready to deal with what they went through at the hands of the army, Col Mothae said: “They are ready to deal with these issues and being true soldiers, they understand how the military operates and they are willing to work with the current army command to address these issues.”
He said talks were held with other members of the army to ensure that the 45 soldiers were wholly accepted by their fellows who remained in the army while they fled.
Asked if the 45 were absolved of the mutiny charges, Col Mothae said the mutiny charges “never existed in the vocabulary” of the current government.
He said the SADC Commission of Inquiry explicitly said there was no mutiny plot, adding that government was now working hard to ensure there was sustainable peace and stability in the army and in the country.
Col Mothae said government was working very hard to create a conducive environment for the implementation of security, constitutional, media, public sector and judicial reforms.
This process, which has among other developments, seen the arrest of soldiers suspected of serious crimes, is happening a month before the expected arrival of a 1 200-strong SADC standby force in Lesotho.
The government of Lesotho requested the standby force consisting of military, security, intelligence and civilian experts to assist the LDF in managing the security crisis in the country in the aftermath of the 5 September 2017 assassination of LDF commander, Lieutenant-General Khoantle Motšomotšo by his subordinates Brigadier Bulane Sechele and Colonel Tefo Hashatsi.
Other developments include the detention of Lt-Gen Kamoli last Wednesday and his ongoing interrogation by police over crimes committed under his watch by the military.