By Inhlase Reporter
The eSwatini government has promised to give clarity in response to a hard-hitting report highlighting significant human rights abuse in eSwatini, including unlawful and arbitrary killings by government and its agencies, especially during the pro-democracy protests and related unrest last year.
The latest human rights report by the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour hones in on at least 12 human rights violations eSwatini and has led to calls for the government to do more to protect and promote human rights. The report includes the months of unprecedented civil unrest eSwatini which was sparked by pro-democracy protests and calls for the removal of the country’s absolute ruler, King Mswati III.
The Commissioner of eSwatini’s Commission on Human Rights and Public Administration (CHRPA), Sabelo Masuku said that the US report shows how eSwatini is stagnant in terms of addressing and protecting human rights.
Masuku pleaded with the government to implement recommendations that the international bodies and the commission has made with regards to safeguarding, and promotion of human rights in the country.
Responding to the US report and its findings, eSwatini’s government said that clarity would be provided to the US Embassy.
Assistant government spokesperson, Thabile Mdluli said government will continue to strive to guarantee a free and unhindered enjoyment of human rights.
“We appreciate the interest of our international partners on human rights in Eswatini. We will be going through the report carefully and engage with the US Embassy on issues which require further clarification and have not been correctly reflected in the report,” said Mdluli
The US report examines the violence, destruction and looting during the unrest which saw the security forces being deployed. Four days later over 70 people had been killed and many injured or maimed.
While eSwatini’s government claimed only 34 people had died during the unrest and did not say what the cause was, the US report traces significant human rights issues and includes credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or punishment by the government; political detention and raises serious questions around the independence of the judiciary.
The report also highlights serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including an allegation of violence against foreign journalists; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly; restrictions on freedom of movement; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; and the existence of the worst forms of child labour.
Furthermore, the report notes that the government was inconsistent in its investigation, prosecution, and punishment of officials who allegedly committed human rights abuses.
Government has turned a deaf ear to calls by pro-democracy campaigners for an investigation into the unrests
“The unrest was marked by violence, looting, arson, and large-scale destruction of property. In October civil unrest again sparked protests, resulting in at least one death and dozens of injuries. During the unrest, the military was deployed to restore order, and the government disrupted internet service. The government acknowledged that there were 34 fatalities from civil unrest in late June and early July, but other groups reported much higher numbers. There were credible reports that security forces used excessive force responding to unrest,” states the US report.
The report also notes that in October 2021 eSwatini’s Commission on Human Rights and Public Administration (CHRPA), which is a semi-autonomous government body, released a preliminary assessment specifically reviewing events during the unrests beginning June 28. This also contradicted government’s estimation and assessment of the loss of life
The CHRPA verified 46 deaths due to the unrest but stated that “this figure does not rule out the possibility of more deaths.” It also cites swift funerals and the possibility of unregistered deaths. The US report also notes how the CHRPA also verified that a total of 245 persons sustained gunshot injuries, including 17 children, 17 women, and two elderly persons.
While the CHRPA could not verify if injuries were the result of rubber bullets or live rounds of ammunition, the commission’s assessment is that lethal force was used indiscriminately on protesters and members of the public who were not engaged in protests, as demonstrated by the death of children and women and the injuries sustained by victims on the upper body, such as head, abdomen, and spinal area.
The US report states that: “Internal investigations by the Royal Eswatini Police Service (REPS) and the military were still pending as of year’s end. The government maintained that security forces took appropriate measures to restore law and order. In September, Sizwe Shoulder, who lost his mother during the unrest, allegedly due to complications after she was beaten by soldiers, initiated court proceedings against Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini, alleging that his mother was deprived of her right to life.”
During a second round of unrest on October 20, at least one person was killed, and 80 others were wounded by security forces. In addition, there are also media and witness reports that police stopped two buses carrying protesters and threw tear gas inside the buses.
Those on the bus could be seen in video footage jumping from the bus windows as oncoming cars swerved to avoid them. Gun shots could also be heard in the video footage, and protesters alleged that police shot at them with rubber bullets as they ran to escape the tear gas. At least one protester was shot with a rubber bullet in the face, according to local media.
Additionally, the US report said there were no credible reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. Some citizens, however, alleged that they were prevented from filing missing person’s reports for relatives who disappeared during the civil unrest.
While the report raises concerns over the torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment saying there were numerous reports that security forces employed such practices, the laws of eSwatini prohibits police from inflicting, instigating, or tolerating torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. It is also a disciplinary offense for officers to use violence, unnecessary force or intimidation when carrying out their duties. But these pieces of legislation only exist on paper. They are never implemented as torture and inhuman treatment is the order of the day in the police force. The number of lawsuits against police is confirmation that police torture suspects.
In the 2018 annual report, police recorded 40 civil claims amounting to millions of Emalangeni. It reflected a 12.5% decline from the previous year where 45 lawsuits were recorded.
The US report states that: “During the year there were several reports of police brutality towards those alleged to have violated curfews that were imposed during the unrest and continued under the auspices of COVID-19 responses. According to media and civil society, security forces beat citizens on the buttocks and elsewhere for breaking curfew.
“There was also a report that soldiers forced a group of boys to eat raw meat they were preparing to cook. According to media reports the boys were within the confines of their homestead but were gathered after curfew.”
There were numerous reports of police brutality during drug raids in Lavumisa and Hosea, including one report in August of a pregnant woman who was beaten badly by police and subsequently miscarried.
The case of Thomas Nhlanhla Tsabedze, whose leg was amputated after being shot in the June unrest, was noted as he sued the government after police officers in August allegedly kicked his amputated leg stump repeatedly until the stiches broke.
“In October, 60 workers from the Swaziland Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union claimed that soldiers stopped them from traveling to a planned protest march, beat them, and forced them to roll in the mud,” added the report
The report also highlight the case of Thabani Nkomonye, a law student at the University of Eswatini, who died allegedly from a car accident in May saying although police investigated the crash site, his body was not found until days after the accident, prompting accusations that REPS was responsible for his death.
Acting Prime Minister, Themba Masuku had set up an inquest into the circumstances surrounding the student’s death; this was pending at the time of compilation of the report.
However, this past week the Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini announced that the coroner had completed the inquest and handed over the report. The family of Nkomonye also has a copy of the report.