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Ramodibedi article earns editor 2-year jail term

MBABANE — A prominent editor in Swaziland has been sentenced to two years in prison or M400 000 in fines this week for “scandalising the courts”, following a critical article he wrote about Swaziland’s controversial chief justice, Michael Ramodibedi, three years ago.
Bheki Makhubu and the Nation magazine that he edits were fined a total of M200 000, with half of the fine suspended for five years.
He was told to pay the M200 000 balance within three days or go to jail.
This coincides with an unprecedented complaint by the Swaziland Law Society to the African Commission on Human Rights in The Gambia, which accuses Justice Ramodibedi of systematically undermining the independence of the Swazi judiciary.
In February 2010, Makhubu wrote a column protesting against Justice Ramodibedi’s description of himself as the makhulu baas (big boss) of Swaziland’s judges during the official opening of the high court.
Makhubu objected that the phrase was associated with South Africa’s old apartheid order, had no place in a civilised society and was at odds with the decorum expected of a senior judge.
“The good thing for Justice Ramodibedi is that Swazis, because of their long, rich and strong traditions, will teach him what culture really is,” Makhubu wrote.
Justice Ramodibedi is also president of the Court of Appeal in Lesotho.
The case against Makhubu was tried by a High Court judge, Justice Bheki Maphalala, widely seen by lawyers in Swaziland as a stalking horse for the royal family.
Maphalala also found Makhubu guilty on a second charge of contempt of court over an article he wrote in November 29 2009 criticising Supreme Court judges, including Justice Ramodibedi, for their dismissive attitude towards an application by pro-democracy groups for clarity on whether the Constitution allowed political parties.
Political parties have been banned in Swaziland since 1973.Maphalala’s judgment said Makhubu overstepped the boundaries of freedom of expression in “a scurrilous, unlawful attack on the integrity of the chief justice” that “undermined the independence and functioning of the judiciary”.
Attorney general Majahenkhaba Dlamini prosecuted the case after being delegated to do so by his wife, Mumsy Dlamini, the director of public prosecutions.
Arguing that Makhubu’s 2010 column “was more of a threat to the physical wellbeing of the chief justice than a friendly warning” and was “intimidating, if not terrorising to the judge”, Dlamini said the phrase “makhulu baas” was common currency in Southern Africa.
Dlamini said Makhubu had interpreted the expression in bad faith to pour scorn and ridicule on Justice Ramodibedi.
Makhubu, whose legal team included South African advocate Gilbert Marcus, is appealing against the judgment.
In his defence, he said the court had contravened Section 24 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, legitimate comment and criticism.
Makhubu denied that his intention was to bring the judiciary into disrepute, saying that he was a loyal, patriotic citizen committed to the promotion of democracy in Swaziland.
He said he acted in the best interests of the country by informing the public.
Justice Ramodibedi is not new to controversy.
In Lesotho, he was involved in a bitter feud over seniority with retiring Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla.
In 2011, he was the focus of a six-month court boycott by lawyers in Swaziland, who accused him of “gross interference in the administration of the courts and infringement of people’s rights to justice”.
The protest revolved around his order relating to cases against King Mswati, as well as a practice directive ordering that all cases, particularly those directed at the government, should be referred to him so that he could hand-pick the presiding officers. — M&G

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