MURDER-ACCUSED soldier, Major Pitso Ramoepane, was on Thursday forced to withdraw his application challenging the High Court’s jurisdiction to try him for the May 2017 murder of three civilians in Maseru.
This after evidence surfaced showing that he had been properly charged for the murder.
Major Ramoepane is accused alongside Brigadier Rapele Mphaki, Sergeant Lekhooa Moepi, Captain Mahlehle Moeletsi, Lance Corporal Mahlomola Makhoali and Privates Nthatakane Motanyane, Motšoane Machai, Liphapang Sefako, Nemase Faso and Tieho Tikiso.
The accused allegedly strangled Lekhoele Noko, Molise Pakela and Khothatso Makibinyane at Setibing, Maseru, on 16 May 2017 and dumped their bodies in the Mohale Dam.
The soldiers allegedly kidnapped and murdered the three men after the trio had just been released from police custody where they had been detained in connection with a shooting incident at the Maseru border gate on 13 May 2017.
When their trial got underway on Wednesday before Judge Moroke Mokhesi, Major Ramoepane’s nine co-accused soldiers pleaded not guilty to the charges. When it was his turn, Major Ramoepane pleaded that “the court does not have jurisdiction”.
His lawyer, Advocate Karabo Mohau, then told the judge that his client was wrongfully before the High Court as he had not undergone a preparatory examination in the magistrates’ court before being referred to the superior court for trial.
Therefore, he could not stand trial in the High Court, Adv Mohau argued.
“Mr Ramoepane has not been charged in the magistrates’ court and he has not been formally joined to the case except to be served with the notice of trial in 2018,” Adv Mohau argued.
Justice Mokhesi then postponed the matter to Thursday to hear Adv Mohau’s arguments against the joining of his client to the trial.
Proceedings resumed on Thursday with the prosecution calling on High Court’s Assistant Registrar, Stafford Sharite, to testify that contrary to his claims, Major Ramoepane had indeed been formally joined to the trial.
Advocate Sharite testified that he had in 2018 interviewed all 10 accused soldiers, including Major Ramoepane, at the Maseru Central Correctional Institution. The interview was conducted ahead of the soldiers’ first High Court appearance in connection with the murder trial.
Adv Sharite said Major Ramoepane told him that he had never been charged in connection with this matter and he (Sharite) then arranged for the charge sheet to be read to the soldier. He said Major Ramoepane was joined to the trial by the now deceased Judge ‘Maseshophe Hlajoane on 26 March 2018. Justice Hlajoane died of after a long illness in March 2019.
“Mr Ramoepane told me that he had been arrested in connection with other cases but not this one. Therefore, he did not understand why he was being served with the notice of the trial when he had never been arraigned before a magistrates’ court in relation to this matter,” Adv Sharite said.
“He (Ramoepane) reiterated the same argument when we were before Her Ladyship Hlajoane on 26 March 2018. I was assisting Her Ladyship in court as her registrar and also standing in for her clerk.
“She ordered me to read the indictment to all the 10 accused who were before her and asked whether they understood the charges and their answer was in the affirmative. However, they did not plead to the charges as they were told that their matter was awaiting a judge to preside over it. Yesterday (Wednesday) I went to our information technology department to look for the recording of that day’s proceedings but I could not find it,” Adv Sharite added.
Adv Mohau took advantage of Adv Sharite’s admission that he could not find the recording of the court proceedings of the day when Major Ramoepane was joined to the case to argue that he was never joined at all.
“Does it not surprise you that there is no recording or notes of the judge in the court file? What you say never happened before Justice Hlajoane and obviously she is not here to speak for herself,” Adv Mohau said.
Adv Mohau then asked Major Ramoepane to take the witness stand and tell the court what had transpired in relation to his being joined to the trial. Major Ramoepane insisted that he had never been indicted before but only served with a notice of trial. He said Justice Hlajoane had only remanded them to their next court appearance date without joining him to the trial.
But matters took a new twist when the prosecution informed Justice Mokhesi that they were in possession of a picture of a court file’s cover which bore Justice Hlajoane’s notes of 26 March 2018 proving that Major Ramoepane had indeed been formally joined to the trial.
The prosecution team comprised of Advocates Shaun Abrahams, ‘Naki Nku and Motene Rafoneke.
Upon hearing this, Justice Mokhesi adjourned proceedings for about 15 minutes, saying he needed to go and look for the file on the case. He returned with the file which he then passed the file to both the Crown and defence lawyers to inspect and say if they thought it was authentic.
“I am not a handwriting expert but that handwriting looks like that of Justice Hlajoane,” said Justice Mokhesi.
“Would I be wrong to believe her notes? If her record says the charges were read to the accused whom am I to dispute that? In fact, it would amount to disrespect to my late colleague.”
Adv Mohau then consulted with Major Ramoepane but the latter was still adamant that he was never formally charged by Justice Hlajoane.
However, Adv Mohau told the court that they would not take the matter any further and subsequently a plea of “not guilty” was entered on behalf of Major Ramoepane.
The Crown proceeded to call its first witness, Police Senior Inspector Mpheheletse Khatleli, who was then the Officer Commanding Pitso Ground Criminal Investigation Division at the time the civilians were allegedly murdered by the 10 soldiers.
Snr Insp Khatleli told the court that he had received a phone call on the evening of 13 May 2018 from his then colleague, one Inspector Motanya, who told him that three people had been shot at Maseru Border Post and two of them were soldiers.
He said one Private Seliane had been shot dead together with a civilian, Moeketsi Makhabane, who was a hawker at the border. Another soldier, one Private Nkonyama, had only sustained injuries and had been rushed to Queen ‘Mamohato Memorial Hospital.
Snr Insp Khatleli told the court that he then proceeded to Pitso Ground Police Station where he found six men who had been arrested in connection with the shooting incident. Among them were Messrs Noko, Pakela and Makibinyane- the trio who the 10 soldiers are accused of murdering. The three had been arrested together with Motlatsi Rantaoane, Molise Motaung and Tello Thoi.
The court then adjourned and when it resumes tomorrow, Snr Insp Khatleli will proceed with his evidence.