Tuesday, June 30th was a very good day. Two activists in Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, walked free after serving over a year of a two-year prison sentence. Bhekithemba (Bheki) Makhubu, editor of The Nation magazine, and Thulani Maseko, an human rights attorney, were released after an appeals court determined there was no case against the men.
This blog posting is part of a series Amnesty USA is publishing to coincide with the U.S.-Africa Summitoccurring August 4-6, 2014. We are utilizing the series to highlight human rights concerns on the continent we feel critically need to be addressed during the summit discussions.
Contributed by Jamie Skaluba, Amnesty International USA Country Specialist for Swaziland, Malawi and Lesotho
As King Mswati III and his delegation board their royal airplane to Washington, D.C. to lend a Swazi voice to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, two men remain imprisoned in Swaziland for merely exercising their human right to use their voices.
Johanna Lee contributed to this post.
Starting August 4, the Obama Administration will host a mini replica of an African Union (AU) summit. As many as 40 heads of state from the continent will be on hand for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, a conference that will look at ways to boost trade and investment in the continent, tap into Africa’s burgeoning youth population, and promote good governance.
The idea for such a summit is laudable, considering the critical issues that will be discussed – issues that will continue to be key challenges for both Africa and U.S. policy towards the continent and as part of addressing the chronic need to raise educate the public about the realities of the different countries that make up Africa, unknown success stories and it’s untapped economic potential.
Unfortunately, unless a major change is made, the summit risks simply becoming an AU heads of state road trip with a photo-op at the end to confirm that they visited Washington before returning home.
Labor unions in Swaziland called off a third day of protests after police harassment and arbitrary arrests caused them to fear for the lives of demonstrators. Police used excessive force to disperse protests including firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons into crowds.
On April 11, four key activists were arrested ahead of the announced protests. Those detained were officials from the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS), the banned youth organization SWAYOCO and an organizer for the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF). They were released on April 13, and placed under unlawful house arrest.
Mary da Silva, a lawyer and coordinator of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, was arrested and seized while giving an interview to a journalist. “Some people were taken away in big trucks, and they were dumped way out in the bush where there is no transportation,” said Ms. da Silva. “Basically, what they are doing is kidnapping activists.”
I was very excited to read today that ten countries in southern Africa decided to join forces, eliminate borders and become one country. This will make it easier for many Westerners who already think the continent of Africa is just one country; or at least think all the countries are exactly the same and therefore propose the same “one size fits all” solutions over and over again to mostly Western created problems.
Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana and Angola will now be called South Zamalawimbiqueothobabweibialand. Recognizing this will be a challenge to fit on business cards, government officials have declared its ok to just call this new nation South Africa, since before the union it was the only country most Westerners could reliably find on a map.
It was quite a struggle to decide how this new nation would be governed, and there were points where it became quite ugly when dos Santos and Mugabe descended into vicious name calling, as both men are accustomed to longevity as heads of their prior respective states. In the end, after many rounds of rock/paper/scissors, it was concluded that Bono would lead this new nation forward because it was felt to be the best way to secure debt relief, HIV funding and better coverage in People/US/OK magazine.
For similar reasons; Madonna will be Minister of Education (sorry to all those people who can now expect to lose their homes so she can build more schools), Oprah will be named Cultural Minister (her new talk show will launch in 2012), Brangelina will be appointed co-Ministers of Internally Displaced Persons (expect lots of fighting between them and Madonna over those displaced for Madonna’s new schools as well as the best photo opps with their adopted children) and Mariah Carey will be Minister of Agriculture (good luck on that starvation diet Mariah!)
One of the first acts of this new nation will be to set up a large lion preserve to promote the image that lions roam free in the streets throughout Africa. Also, media relations will assure that news coverage focuses predominantly on anything bad happening in the region with an emphasis on promoting negative stereotypes, while ignoring positive stories. In particular, media will assure that any stories about the many amazing Africans working to improve conditions within their new nation will continue to rarely be printed because pictures of sad children are considered the only way to get people to care and stories of Africans helping themselves will discourage other celebrities from traveling to region for photo opps and establishing charitable organizations in an attempt to seem less self-absorbed.
Within Amnesty USA, the Southern Africa Co-group welcomes this new nation because it means much less work for us. It was getting very tiresome to lobby ten different governments about human rights conditions. Now, we only have to pester Bono. Oh, and happy April Fool’s Day.
As 2009 winds down, here’s a wrap up of the year’s highlights from the southern Africa region. From elections, to assassinations, to elections, to awards ,to elections, to boycotts, to elections, to what was all in all a fairly smooth year compared to what might have been, here are a few notes about human rights conditions in the 12 countries we monitor for Amnesty International USA.
Angola was supposed to hold presidential elections this year but didn’t. Current (and for the last 30 years) president, dos Santos, said constitutional reform must come first and this will take another two years. Constitutional reform=good. Using it as an excuse to delay democratic elections=bad.
Forced evictions continued in 2009 in Angola. Amnesty International continues to call for an end to illegal evictions and for just compensation for forcibly displaced persons in Angola.
On a positive note, Prisoner of Conscience Fernando Lelo was released this year. Lelo is a journalist imprisoned for criticizing above noted president. However, those who were tried and convicted with him remain incarcerated. Lelo directly credited Amnesty activists for their efforts on his behalf. Pat yourselves on the back for a job well done!
Botswana held elections this year. Khama was elected to a new term, after finishing out the term of his predecessor. Major concerns in Botswana continue to be media restrictions, repression of labor unions, displacement of indigenous persons and high HIV infection rates. But Khama does his fair share of criticizing regional leaders and tweaking the nose of Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe. He mailed a congratulatory letter to the ladies of Women of Zimbabwe Arise following their win of the RFK Human Rights Award this year.
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Update: Amnesty International released a report today confirming the abuse of media representatives and political activists outside the prison when Mario Masuku was released.
[T]he security officers reacted aggressively to the presence … of some 50 noisy but peaceful, unarmed supporters … journalists were standing near them. Without any official warning to disperse, security officers charged into the group at the gate. They severely assaulted a number of leading political activists and demanded that the journalists stop filming and photographing their actions. They seized cameras … and verbally abused, threatened and physically assaulted several journalists.”
Mario Masuku was acquitted of all charges and released from prison this week. The fifty-eight year old political activist spent nearly a year in prison, accused of violating Swaziland’s oppressive Suppression of Terrorism law. Masuku is the leader of a banned political party. Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
Mario Masuku was arrested on November 15, 2008 and charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008 for a statement he was alleged to have made “giving support to the commission of a terrorist act”. His trial commenced the morning of September 21, 2009. In the afternoon, on the conclusion of the State’s presentation of its case and its witnesses, the court accepted a motion from the defense lawyers that Mario Masuku should be acquitted without having to give evidence, be cross-examined or call other witnesses in his own defence. We are informed that the judge granted the motion and acquitted Mario Masuku on the basis of a complete lack of evidence against him.
Amnesty International’s Southern Africa Team spoke to Mario Masuku following his release as he was travelling back to his home accompanied by his legal team. He seemed well and in high spirits, if tired. He told us that he was looking forward to a bath, some sleep, and to seeing his grandchildren, his wife and all the other relatives that would be waiting for him at home. He was also quick to express his appreciation of all the support that he received from Amnesty International and other organisations and individuals across the world. He noted that he was aware that Amnesty delegates had tried to visit him in prison in March of this year.
Unfortunately, Amnesty International was also informed that there was an incident outside the prison where Mario Masuku was awaiting his release this afternoon. We are investigating allegations that the police used excessive force against some of his supporters.
Amnesty International USA will soon post an action directed to the government of Swaziland raising concerns about the Suppression of Terrorism Act and calling for amendments to be made to bring the Act in line with Swaziland’s commitments under international and regional human rights law and the country’s own constitution.