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Rough ‘justice’ for Lipolelo

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MASERU – THE victim was an estranged wife refusing divorce to block her husband from marrying his sweetheart, 40 years his junior. The husband was a powerful political mover and shaker only three days away from being inaugurated as Prime Minister. The sweetheart was a garrulous, mercurial and irrepressibly ambitious beauty who had sustained a decade-long relationship with the evidently smitten politician.

The victim was Lipolelo Thabane. Thomas Thabane was the husband and his sweetheart was ‘Maesaiah. Two years back, during Thabane’s first stint as Prime Minister, ‘Maesaiah had brazenly moved into the State House and enjoyed the handsome per diems that came with being the Prime Minister’s plus-one on international trips.

Now Thabane was about to be the Prime Minister again but the estranged Lipolelo was opposing divorce and insisting that she will be the First Lady. She had to die and she did in the cruelest of ways. As Lipolelo drove on a dirt road to her home on the outskirts of Maseru, with a friend, gunmen sprayed bullets on her car and disappeared into the night.

She died on the spot while her friend, Thato Sibolla, spent months battling for her life in hospital. With the estranged wife eliminated, Thabane took the oath of office as Prime Minister with ‘Maesaiah beaming from the tent packed with dignitaries.

She was hit plus one. They would marry at an opulent event a few days later to confirm a marriage that many already knew had existed for years despite the lack of rings and a wedding to publicly confirm it.

But even as the bride glided on the red carpet in a yellow gown, some in the terraces of the stadium mumbled about how she had to eliminate the prime minister’s wife to be in that dress and be the star of the event.
Some twisted their faces in disgust as she said “I do” and the Prime Minister clasped her face to plant a passionate kiss on her mascaraed lips.

To many, this was a marriage borne out of a murder. Their motive was to do what they were doing now: marrying. It, therefore, did not come as a surprise when, a few years later, ‘Maesaiah was arraigned for Lipolelo’s murder. That her husband, Thabane, was also in on the murder did not shock many. After all, this is what many had suspected.

The police would add details that would confirm what, until then, had been a rumour. ‘Maesaiah would skip the country, slither back, get charged, granted a dubious bail and locked up for a few days after the bail was overturned on appeal.

Then began the endless court appearances at which she would sometimes throw tantrums at journalists snapping her pictures. Thabane would initially avoid charges by arguing that being prime minister made him immune to prosecution. He would eventually leave office after pressure from his party, the government and regional peers.

Stripped of his immunity and the wife bereft of the power and influence that comes with being married to the Prime Minister, the two entered the court.

The stage had been set for what promised to be an epic trial that would grip the nation. It was supposed to be Lesotho’s trial of the decade, if not the 21st century. And so the country waited with bated breath. Soon, they thought, they would hear the lurid details of how the murder was hatched and executed.

For a brief moment, it looked like they were about to get ringside tickets to the murder trial already in international headlines. As per the police’s charge sheet and affidavits, they heard how Thababe and his wife promised M3 million to the hitmen hired to kill Lipolelo.

They were told that the couple also promised government jobs to some of the assassins. They heard stories about the couple’s connections to a famo music gang notorious for hits on rivals and being used as hitmen.

The police and the prosecution said they had nearly 50 witnesses ready to give incriminating evidence against the Thabanes. But those acquainted with Lesotho’s judiciary and how it is like a sieve with special holes for the connected and powerful remained sceptical. Their doubts were not without justification. They had seen how previous high-profile cases start with such high drama but fizzle when it mattered the most.
These cases ranged from abuse of office to murder. As the Thabanes prepared for another appearance that was set for July, two cases appeared to vindicate the doubting Thomases and confirm their mistrust of the courts.

First was the acquittal of Thabo Moramotse, the Local Government and Chieftainship Affairs Minister, Lehlohonolo Moramotse’s murder-accused son, accused of his sister-in-law’s murder. The judge ruled that the prosecution was relying on the confession that Moramotse claimed after being tortured by the police.

“In conclusion, it is, therefore, the view of this court that this confession stands to be held as inadmissible on the grounds of the mutual destructiveness of the defence and police versions,” Justice Semapo Peete said in his judgement.

Thabo Moramotse walked free. Then came the spectacular acquittal of businessman Tšeliso Nthane for the murder of his driver. Again, the prosecution was in the spotlight for its bungling by failing to conduct investigations and interview credible eyewitnesses.

Yet even the staunchest sceptics would not have predicted what happened on Tuesday this week. A day before the Thabanes appeared in court, some newspapers speculated that Thababe would finally be charged and join his wife in the dock.

They were not far off the mark because that is what the prosecution had been promising for the past two years. The prosecution however had a surprise. Less than a minute is how long it took to end what was supposed to be Lesotho’s trial of the decade. It was a hastily delivered anti-climax to an elaborate but sad spectacle that has dragged on for five years.

Gareth Leppan, a South African advocate recently hired by the DPP to prosecute Thabane and his wife, came to court to announce his failure and that of his boss.

Advocate Leppan told the court that the prosecution was withdrawing the case against the Thabanes because it could not find a key state witness.

“My lord we have been unable to trace a particularly important witness in this matter. And having discussed this matter with the Director of Public Prosecutions, the said director has decided to withdraw the charges in this matter my Lord and accordingly today that is the application to this court that the charges be withdrawn,” Advocate Leppan said.

With those brief words, the prosecutor ended the highly anticipated trial before it even started, leaving people to salivate and speculate as to what would have happened.

What was supposed to be an epic trial is dead, at least for now. As Advocate Leppan sank back into his chair a buzz of excitement spread through the public gallery dominated by Thabane’s supporters.

But Advocate Leppan’s announcement had also ploughed a dagger into the heart of one woman who immediately started wailing. She would continue to weep for the next hour as Thabanes’ lawyers addressed the court in what appeared to be a “victory lap”. Armed with the prosecution’s admission that it was retreating, the lawyers painted Thabane and his wife as victims of a political conspiracy.

Thabane and his wife had been harassed by the police and tried in the public court, one said. It was because of these concocted charges that Thabane had been hounded out of office and forced to end his tenure prematurely, he said. Were it not for those cooked-up charges Thabane would still be prime minister, he added.

The media, both local and international, had turned the trumped-up charges against the Thabanes into fodder for sensational headlines.

“Accused number two (Thomas Thabane) is now 83 years old heading to 84, he is a retired Prime Minister who should be resting and enjoying the peace of his mind, yet he had been dragged to the court for two years, four months and some days, only for the crown to say its house is not in order,” Advocate Phafane lamented.

“The inevitable conclusion that the crown never had a case against the accused in the first place, is one of those cases that one can safely say, the crown or the police were playing for the gallery, they were playing for the media, they were playing political games,” Advocate Phafane said.

He said the case was used to remove Thabane from office prematurely. Attorney Qhalehang Letsika was equally scathing in his criticism of the police’s handling of the case. Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli had been one of the beneficiaries of the unfounded charges against the Thabanes, Attorney Letsika said.

His logic was that Commissioner Molibeli only brought the charges against Messiah when Thabane wanted to fire him. He asked the court to order the prosecution to pay the Thabanes’ legal costs.  The judge however gently let him down and he didn’t pursue the matter. When the lawyers were eventually done with their monologues, the judge asked: “So what do you want me to do?”

“Nothing, your honour,” one of them says.

The public anger towards the withdrawal of the case is palpable. You see it in the reactions on social media. One prominent lawyer wondered why the prosecution was claiming that it didn’t have witnesses when one of them told the police that the Thabanes instructed her to deliver money to Lipolelo’s killers. Others vented their anger at the courts while others said they had always known that the Thabanes would be let off the hook. The truth however is more nuanced.

The prosecution appears to have been caught between a rock and a hard place. Although there are 39 witnesses, only four have direct knowledge of the planning and the execution of the murder. Those four, who are Basotho based in South Africa, appear reluctant to give statements to the police.

Some are said to have been playing “hide and seek” with the police. thepost has been told that there is an agreement that the case against the Thabanes would falter without those testimonies.

“Their evidence is so crucial that the prosecution cannot proceed without them,” said an official close to the case.

Two of those witnesses are members of the famo music gang that organised the hit while the other two know about how the murder was planned.

“The prosecution knew that the defence was now planning to apply for acquittal on the basis that the cases had been delayed for too long and the case against ‘Maesaiah is not proceeding,” said a source privy to the prosecution’s internal discussions about the case.

“If the prosecution had charged Thabane it meant he had to enter a plea and the case would have to proceed. But the trouble was that the prosecution is still struggling to get the four key witnesses.”

“They don’t know when those witnesses will be available”.

He said the withdrawal is a “strategic retreat rather than a surrender” Rarely do murder cases come with such prominent suspects, lurid details and high drama. This one has been told at bar counters, funerals and weddings.
The police have told it too in fascinating detail. So have the prosecution. The only missing side of the story is that of the accused.

But we may never know because the prosecution has chickened out and withdrawn the case. The source said the prosecution could still reinstate the charges once it finds the witnesses. That leaves some hope that the Thabanes will have their day in court but many believe the case is as dead as a dodo.

Staff Reporter

 

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Deadlock over reforms

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MASERU – THE government’s plan to use state of emergency powers to recall parliament to pass the reforms faces serious resistance from the opposition and legal experts.
A marathon meeting this week to build consensus on the use of state of emergency powers to recall parliament could not break the impasse.

The deadlock comes as Lesotho is reeling under pressure from the international and regional community to pass the reforms. SADC, which instigated and part-funded the reforms, has promised Lesotho hell if the reforms are not passed.

The United States might pull the plug on its recently approved M4 billion development aid to Lesotho. The African Union is said to have registered its disappointment with the government and insisted that the reforms be passed.

The EU, which contributed generously to the reforms process, is not playing the ‘carrot and stick’ game but gently pushing the government to find a way to complete the reforms.

Law Minister Lekhetho Rakuoane told a meeting of political parties yesterday that the government will soon discuss how Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro can request the Council of State to advise the king to recall parliament to pass the reforms.

Rakuoane, a lawyer by profession, is still cautiously optimistic that it’s possible to use the state of emergency powers for the King to recall parliament.

That interpretation is however being rejected by some in the government and the opposition who believe the failure to pass the reforms is not an emergency.

The constitution defines a state of emergency as a war or a monumental threat to Lesotho’s sovereignty or life.

Monyane Moleleki, the Alliance of Democrats (AD)’s leader, told the meeting that he doesn’t believe the reforms constitute an emergency that justifies recalling parliament.

“In general, it is unthinkable to recall a National Assembly which was dissolved constitutionally, officially or formally by His Majesty the King,” Moleleki said.

“The country finds itself in a difficult situation. Lesotho is constitutionally in a predicament and some urge us to consider the predicament an emergency.”

“Actually, there is no state of emergency in Lesotho today but just a predicament,” he said.

Even if the government goes ahead to use the state of emergency clause to reopen parliament there will still be disagreements over which Bill parliament should pass.

The majority of the officials who were in the now disbanded National Reforms Authority (NRA) accuse the parliament of dismembering the initial Bill they submitted.

They say the parliament sneaked in new amendments and removed others to create a Bill that doesn’t reflect the people’s views.

The Senate has reservations about the parliament’s changes and appears sympathetic to the NRA’s view that the Bill should not be outrageously different to what the people suggested.

The Lesotho Council of NGOs (LCN), which facilitated this week’s dialogue, is reportedly not hostile to recalling parliament but wants parliament to pass the initial Bill from the NRA without changes.

MPs however insist they will not take instructions from any other institution because only parliament has the power to make laws.

But even if they agree to reopen parliament and find each other on which Bill to pass, there is likely to be another problem.

Advocate Tekane Maqakachane believes there is no legal loophole that the government can use to recall parliament.

“There is absolutely no loophole to use for that. There is no state of emergency to justify such,” Advocate Maqakachane said.

“The law is the law. You cannot violate it because you have created your own crisis by failing to do things on time.”

He said even if the government insists on violating the constitution by recalling parliament, the MPs will quickly find themselves in another legal jam.

He said several of the amendments that were before parliament require a referendum before they get royal assent. These include the changes to the Bill of Rights and changes to the structure of the judiciary.

“These are what we call double entrenched clauses and they are part of the Bill that some are saying parliament should be recalled to pass,” Advocate Maqakachane said.

“The trouble is that a referendum can only be held no less than two months and not more than six months after it has been passed by parliament.”

This, Advocate Maqakachane said, means there is no way the amendments can be legally passed before the October 7 election even if parliament is recalled.

His strong legal view is shared by several other lawyers who spoke to thepost.

That could indicate that there is a real possibility that a decision to recall parliament could be legally challenged. If that happens, the matter would no longer be in the government’s hands but would play out in the courts.

An epic legal battle might be looming.

Nkheli Liphoto

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Moleleki’s security guards, car withdrawn

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MASERUTHE government has withdrawn security guards and a vehicle allocated to the official leader of parliament Monyane Moleleki.

The vehicle was taken away last Friday.

Moleleki could not be reached for comment but his Alliance of Democrats (AD) spokesman, Thuso Litjobo, confirmed the development.

The position of official leader of opposition in parliament is equivalent to that of a deputy minister and is entitled to the use of a government vehicle and security guards.

Even when the King dissolves parliament and calls for fresh elections, ministers and their deputies do not lose their entitlements such as cars or security.

The same goes for the official leader of opposition in parliament, the Speaker and his deputy.

Litjobo said the withdrawal of the vehicle and security was meant to ensure that Moleleki did not have resources to campaign for the October 7 general elections.

He said this was unfair since all ministers and their deputies still have access to state resources to campaign.

“Our leader is still entitled to those benefits,” Litjobo said.

“We do not have the power to do anything about this.”

Litjobo said they were shocked when they learnt that Moleleki’s security, staff, salary and everything had been taken away.

“For now the only thing we can do as a party is to complain,” he said.

Moleleki has been the official leader of opposition in parliament since the establishment of the Moeketsi Majoro-led government in 2019.

The Thomas Thabane-led government which began its tenure in 2017, in which Moleleki was the deputy prime minister, collapsed and Moleleki’s party was the largest in the opposition, making him leader of opposition.

As the official leader of the opposition, the Constitution grants Moleleki some benefits.

Among these, he has an office, staff, salary, a vehicle, and free fuel.

Moleleki had qualified to be the leader of opposition with his 11 MPs although most of them have since joined other political parties.

The army spokesman, Captain Sakeng Lekola, told thepost that he was not aware of the removal of Moleleki’s security.

“Such things can be asked to the government,” Captain Lekola said.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman, Buta Moseme, said the premier’s office is not responsible for the installation or removal of entitlements of the leader of opposition.

The government spokesman, Communications Minister Sam Rapapa, said the questions should be directed at the Clerk of Parliament Fine Maema.

Maema’s phone was ringing unanswered last night.

Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu, who is the leader of parliament, could not be reached for comment last night.

Nkheli Liphoto

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ABC at war over Thetsane candidate

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MASERU – A fight over who should represent the All Basotho Convention (ABC) in the Thetsane constituency in Maseru spilled into court this week.

Two separate constituency committees which were elected on June 11 and July 2 respectively are now fighting over who has the right to preside over the selection of a candidate this Sunday.

The June 11 committee is made up of Silase Mokhitli, Semonko Lesenyeho, Mako Chobokoane, Khoale Thene, Thabo Nkesi and ‘Mathabo Makalanyane.

The July 2 committee is made up of Motinyane Motinyane, ‘Matsekiso Motinyane, ‘Matokelo Morie, Mphonyane Kekana, Nondabesithe Babeli and Lelimo Monese.

The June 11 committee filed an urgent application in the High Court yesterday seeking to interdict the July 2 committee from holding themselves out as the members of the constituency committee pending determination of their application.

The June 11 committee also asks the court to order the party’s spokesman, Montoeli Masoetsa, and the National Executive Committee to file a record of proceedings of the elective conference of July 2 for the constituency.

They say the court should declare the July 2 committee election null and void.

A lawyer representing the June 11 committee, Advocate Letuka Molati, in his certificate of urgency, said the July 2 committee prejudiced his clients.

Advocate Molati said the July 2 committee is unlawfully preparing the nomination of the candidate for the Thetsane constituency on Sunday.

“Applicants have no alternative remedy as the National Executive Committee of the All Basotho Convention is ignoring to pronounce itself on the matter such that the illegal body will prepare for the nominations of the candidates for the up-coming national elections,” Advocate Molati said.

The June 11’s representative, Silase Mokhitli, told the court in an affidavit that Masoetsa and Senator Mphonyane Lebesa conducted the July 2 elections fraudulently.

“On the 11th June 2022, my co-applicants and I were elected as members of the constituency committee of the All Basotho Convention for the Thetsane constituency no. 34,” Mokhitli said.

Mokhitli said there was a peaceful handover of power from the old constituency committee and he was elected as the chairperson of the new Constituency committee.

The newly elected constituency committee submitted reports to the NEC on June 13 that there was only one branch of Thetsane West that had abstained from the constituency committee elective conference.

“We worked very well as the new constituency committee with the NEC of ABC for a period of about two weeks without any complaint,” he said.

He said on June 24, he was surprised to get a call from the secretary general of ABC, Lebohang Hlaele, ordering him and the new committee to report at the party’s headquarters.

Hlaele also invited the old committee, Mokhitli said.

However, Hlaele was not in the office when they arrived on June 27.

Instead they found one ’Maseeng Maputsoe who was accompanied by Masoetsa.

Maputsoe asked why there were two committees in the Thetsane constituency.

Mokhitli said there was only one committee for which he was the chairperson.

He said there were no disputes as all went on smoothly.

Mokhitli said after the deliberations, Maputsoe left with Masoetsa.

“They said they were going to deliberate alone and when they came back they said they made the decision that there should be a repeat of elections in Thetsane constituency,” he said.

Mokhitli said they were not satisfied and they wrote the executive committee seeking intervention but they have not received any response to date.

Instead, Maputsoe and Masoetsa went to Thetsane constituency on July 2 to oversee the repeat of elections.

“They did not have any official document that shows delegation to them from the NEC of ABC,” he said.

“They conducted everything through dictatorship.”

He said during the elections Masoetsa announced that he had expelled two branches and dissolved the four remaining branch committees out of six.

“They then proceeded to conduct elections without verifying the cards of those who qualify to elect and he took 12 people from three branch areas,” Mokhitli said.

“He took 13 people from Thetsane West branch which had abstained when I was elected on the 11th June 2022,” he said.

When people objected, Mokhitli said, Masoetsa strangled one ’Mako Chobokoane with his clothing and one Semonko Lesenyeho came to his rescue.

“Masoetsa, when faced with another objection, assaulted ’Mako Chobokoane, and Lesenyeho intervened again,” he said.

He said Senator Lebesa “was electing on behalf of the electors”.

He said when Maputsoe was asked whether it was proper that Lebesa was writing ballot papers on behalf of voters, she said Lesenyeho could do what he wished.

“Masoetsa and Maputsoe scolded everyone who objected,” he said.

He said the results of the elections were not announced publicly.

Many people left in disgust, Mokhitli said.

“When there were about less than 20 remaining from the original number of more than 150 people Maputsoe announced (the results).”

Mokhitli argued that it would be wrong for people who were not rightly elected to prepare and hold an elective conference for the constituency candidate.

“The fairness and democracy shall not reign. It is clear that democracy is already under threat,” he said.

’Malimpho Majoro

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