Southern Africa Year in Review 2009

Waiting in line to vote. Amnesty International.

Waiting in line to vote. ©Amnesty International

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.

Guinea Bissau

Mario Masuku Acquitted in Swaziland

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.