MASERU — It’s Friday morning and the proceedings in court seven at the High Court have been delayed.
The recorder and the interpreter are late.
Those familiar with the High Court have possibly sighed: “Oh not again!”
Delays are not unusual at the High Court.
On this day the proceedings were supposed to start at 9.30am but now it is a few minutes past 10am.
In the dock sit five men from Ha-Motsepa in Thaba-Tseka, about 200km from the capital.
Today Justice Nthomeng Majara — the judge they have faced in numerous hearings since their murder case opened last year — will deliver the verdict.
They are charged with the murder of Mokoto Lebeche who they claimed was a “notorious stock thief” who had stolen their cattle.
They are anxious but not surprised about today’s delays because they have waited for eight years.
Others have waited for 10, 15 or even 20 years for their cases to be finalised.
The men sitting in the dock are now five. When they were initially charged they were eight but two died while awaiting trial and one has gone to work in the mines in South Africa.
Judging by the number of people in the gallery —three journalists and four spectators — this is clearly not the most interesting case of the day at the Palace of Justice.
The court clerk arrives with a laptop to set up for the judge.
When the judge eventually enters the court, it’s 10.24am.
Justice Majara switches between English and Sesotho as she reads the judgment.
The accused men — Relebohile Matlali, 28, Chaba Motsepa, 43, Sebolai Paki, 58, Kapoko Nthejane, 61, and Mohau Matlali, 68, — hardly move or wince as the judge reads out the judgment.
But as Justice Majara heads for the verdict, the five men start looking terrified.
“It is difficult when there is violence that has resulted in someone dying,” Justice Majara says.
Then she delivers her verdict.
It’s not a murder conviction!
“The accused have been found guilty of assault GBH (assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm), although murder has occurred,” Justice Majara announces.
“The deceased died in this matter and we were told that he was a notorious thief of livestock.
“Stock theft is a serious problem in Lesotho.”
But the import of her words does not seem to register with the five.
They remain seated and staring at the judge as if they have not understood the meaning of her words.
“The farmers live in danger as they have to protect their lives and their livestock as thieves attack them while armed,” Justice Majara continues.
“The case has taken eight years as it happened in 2001 but only got underway last year in 2008.
“You did not know your fate but you should know that this country is governed by the rule of law.”
It is only after the court adjourns at 11.10am that the Thaba-Tseka men finally understand the real meaning of the judgment.
They are no longer facing murder charges. Not even culpable homicide.
Their lawyer, Khathatso Mabulu, tells the worried men that the worst they can expect is imprisonment with an option of a fine.
“We can get that money if they give us a fine,” says a visibly relieved Motsepa.
“Yes we can get it,” Paki chips in.
But when the case resumes the news only gets sweeter.
They have been convicted but they get neither jail time nor a fine.
They are given suspended sentences of two years’ imprisonment or a fine of M1 500 each.
The men can hardly believe their ears when the judge says: “You are discharged and you can go home.”
Neither can they contain their joy as they walk from the dock and start shaking hands with people in the gallery.
The case mirrors the slow pace of the justice delivery system in this country.
The High Court has a huge backlog of unresolved cases, some dating back as far as the 1990s.
Last month president of the Appeal Court of Lesotho, Justice Michael Ramodibedi, lambasted High Court judges and officials for delaying cases.
He cited, as an example, the case Molahlehi Mohale whose case has been pending in the courts since 1997.
“The indictment is dated 2 July 1997. Incredibly, the trial only commenced on 18 July 2008, a delay of more than 10 years,” Justice Ramodibedi was quoted as saying by the Lesotho Times.
For the Thaba-Tseka men, waiting for the verdict has been a traumatic experience.
For eight years, they have been on the tenterhooks, unsure whether or not they would go to jail where conditions are said to be bad.
“It was humiliating to them that the case has taken so long to be heard,” Mabulu, their lawyer, says after the verdict has been delivered.
“They have been worrying about their fate and to them it was like a sentence.”
Although Mabulu’s clients are relieved, the wait for justice has come at a huge cost for them.
They had to travel from Thaba-Tseka to appear in court several times.
They could not make plans for the future, fearing they might end up in jail for a lengthy period.
“I am elated,” says Matlali, one of the accused, outside the court.
“I’m very happy that this cloud that has been hovering over me has been pushed aside.”
Matlali, the youngest of the accused, says he had to abandon his studies because he was not sure of his fate in court.
“I had told my parents that I was wasting their money as I thought that I would be going to prison for life,” he says.
“It was costly to come to Maseru for the court hearings because I had to buy food and pay for accommodation to sleep over,” Paki adds.