THE defence lawyers for murder-accused soldiers on Friday expressed their anger and frustration over the non-appearance of Zimbabwean judge, Justice Charles Hungwe who they expected to hold a pre-trial conference in connection with the murder case.
One of the lawyers, Advocate Lenka Malefane said they were “confused and surprised” that Justice Hungwe did not turn for the pre-trial conference even though they had been reliably informed that he would be available on Friday.
Justice Hungwe arrived in the country last month as the first of five foreign judges to preside over the politically sensitive criminal cases involving politicians and members of the security agencies.
He was sworn in on 15 January by the Acting Chief Justice, ‘Maseforo Mahase, and immediately got down to work by presiding over two cases including that of eight soldiers who stand accused of murdering army commander, Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao on 25 June 2015.
Justice Hungwe also set 22 February as the date for the pre-trial conference of the 10 soldiers accused of strangling Lekhoele Noko, Molise Pakela and Khothatso Makibinyane at Setibing in rural Maseru on 16 May 2017 and dumped their bodies in the Mohale Dam.
The 10 soldiers are Brigadier Rapele Mphaki, Sergeant Lekhooa Moepi, Captain Mahlehle Moeletsi, Lance Corporal Mahlomola Makhoali, Private Nthatakane Motanyane, Motšoane Machai, Tieho Tikiso, Pitso Ramoepana, Liphapang Sefako and Nemase Faso.
The soldiers allegedly kidnapped and murdered the three men after the trio had just been released from police custody where they were detained in connection with a shooting incident that occurred at the Maseru border gate on 13 May 2017.
However, on Friday, the pre-trial conference did not proceed with the lawyers telling High Court judge, Justice Teboho Moiloa, that they were “confused and surprised” that Justice Hungwe did not turn up.
It is believed that Justice Hungwe is in his native Zimbabwe and on Friday, Crown Counsel Advocate Mamongonyo Baasi asked Justice Moiloa to postpone the case to 20 March 2019 by which date Justice Hungwe is expected to be in the country.
“Today was supposed to be the commencement of the pre-trial conference but I have been told that the logistics to have Justice Hungwe here to preside over the matter are nearing finalisation and he (Justice Hungwe) is expected in Lesotho in a month’s time,” Adv Baasi told the court.
“I humbly request the matter to be postponed to 20 March for mention in the belief that should the judge arrive earlier, we will be in court to set a pre-trial date.”
However, this did not go down well with Adv Malefane who said that to their knowledge, Justice Hungwe should have held the pre-trial conference on that day (Friday). Adv Malefane said the crown had not advised them of any changes to the date of the pre-trial conference.
“Although we did not talk with the crown counsel, the information is confusing and surprising as we expected the pre-trial conference to proceed before Justice Hungwe but we do not know why he (Justice Hungwe) is not here.
“We appeared before him (Justice Hungwe) on 16 January 2019 and he set this date (Friday 23 January) for the pre-trial conference. There must be an explanation as to why the matter cannot be heard today,” Adv Malefane said.
However, Justice Moiloa was not moved by Adv Malefane’s arguments and postponed the matter to 20 March 2019.
Justice Moiloa said the crown and the defence should await Justice Hungwe’s arrival for the case to proceed.
“Let us not seek drama where it does not exist. You (defence and crown) have discussed this matter before coming here. Clearly the logistics are underway for judge’s (Hungwe’s) return. If he arrives earlier the registrar will notify you and advice on way forward. The matter has been postponed to 20 March 2019,” Justice Moiloa ordered.