Interview with former prisoner of conscience Thulani Maseko and his wife Tanele
Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was arrested and detained in Swaziland after writing an article raising concerns about judicial independence and integrity in the country. He and his wife Tanele sit down with us after his release from prison to tell their story and share their sincere thanks to Amnesty supporters.
Amnesty: So Thulani tell us what happened to you. What was your story? What happened to you in Swaziland in 2014 and 2015?
Thulani: March 2014. Maybe the best way to answer the question is to say perhaps most of my life I have been involved in the struggle to create a better society in Swaziland. A society that respects the rule of law, human rights and dignity of the Swazi citizen so that includes me writing for a magazine called The Nation. I’m a monthly contributor.
So what happened is that, in 2014, a gentleman who is a public servant in charge of a department in the Ministry of Transport with ensuring that public vehicles are not abused by civil servants, he was arrested on an order by the chief justice on allegations of contempt of court. In February 2014 the editor of The Nation magazine with whom I was co-accused, Makhubu, wrote complaining about the way this public servant was arrested and detained by the chief justice. We felt that the whole thing was unjust but we never discussed it. So he wrote in February, I wrote in March several independent articles, we both complained about this incident.
We didn’t know that we were setting ourselves up for a tribunals report and then charges for contempt of court. The chief justice felt that our writing about the incident on the matter when the ruling was pending before even the court of law was contemptuous. So they both took us in for contempt of court. I was taken in on the Monday evening at about 6 o clock. I was about to knock off from the office in Mbabane. So about three or four police officers came into my office with a warrant of arrest that the CJ has ordered my arrest for my article which he viewed to be contemptuous. So I spend that night in the police cell in Mbabane. Makhubu was ordered to come in the following day on Tuesday and was out of the country on the Monday. That is how the whole thing began in 2014.
Amnesty: And how did you hear about it, Tanele?
Tanele: [laughs] Funnily enough I was actually at the gym waiting for him to come and pick me up. Now realising he’s 15 minutes late, I decided to open my phone and check or try to call him. All of I sudden I realise SMSs from him: “Don’t worry, I have been taken in by the police for questioning. My clerk will bring over the car to you, please drive home - you will see me in the morning.” I was shocked, I tried to call him, fortunately he answered and he told me not to worry, but please bring my neat suit tomorrow because we might be appearing in court.
I was very stressed but I decided to contain myself. Got the car, drove back home. In the morning, drove to the city in Mbabane where he was locked up, asked to see him, we were told we have to wait. They were still going to ask the senior police officer if we were allowed to see him. Fair enough. We waited for close to two hours, because we came there early in the morning around about six thirty, only to see him maybe close to 9. But he seemed OK then, he laughed - I asked him, “What’s happening? What’s wrong? Why are you here?” And he said, “Ah, you know, the struggle continues.” So that is when the whole drama then of going to court every day, the dragging trial, but that was the start.
Amnesty: How long were you held in prison for? So you went to court the next day, is that right?
Thulani: We went to court on the Tuesday morning. We appeared before the chief justice - in chambers. We were expecting to appear before a judge or even before him but in open court. He opted to hear from us in his office, what we call the chambers. When we got there, then Makhubu had come along with us, but when they sought to address him, they didn’t attempt to apply that we be released on bail. What’s the process of the trail would unfold. He simply would not hear a thing. He said, “No, I’m not prepared to hear either you as accused or your lawyers. I’m simply remanding you into custody for 7 days and then you come back to court after 7 days.” So he denied us an audience, in effect, we were simply sent back to the prison.
We spent a night in the police cell and then he sent us to the prison so we spent 7 days in prison in Mbabane. Obviously I was concerned about our being in custody, but they denied us to make an application for bail. I could sense the whole thing had been pre-planned, there was no intention to abide by any of the principles of fairness and justice. I felt it was predetermined.
So to my mind, applying for bail would have been a waste of time, which proved to be correct as my co –accused Bekhi Makhubu filed for bail in the course of the week to be heard on Friday. Somehow the papers disappeared and when they emerged, they were sent before a judge whom we viewed to have been unfit to hear the matter because of his involvement in the matter with the arrested public officer, he would not apply himself independently on the facts before him. But that bail application never saw the light of the day. When it came before him at some point in time, he denied Makhubu a bail, true to my suspicion that if you applied for bail you would be denied. So we then spent March, April in pre-trial detention. And the trial resumed around May 2014. Which lasted May, June. I think then we were sentenced in July and convicted for two years in jail without an option of a fine.
Amnesty: And what was going through your mind, Tanele when all this was happening? How were you coping by yourself? What were you doing? What could you do?
Tanele: I would say I was coping because I needed to be strong for him. I didn’t want him to see me weak because he was in a difficult situation and a weak point, in a place where he couldn’t do anything for himself or for myself. So the best way for me was keep strong, encouraging him, supporting him and trying to keep the family calm and continuing the campaign, you know, raising awareness that they’ve been arrested for writing articles and expressing themselves. So I honestly tried to fight and campaign for their release, one way or the other, speaking in any forum I was given to speak in. I tried to do whatever I could in any way. That’s what I tried doing.
Amnesty: And were they trying to, keep it quiet, the whole thing? So you were trying to keep the awareness going, talk about it…?
Tanele: Yes, in a way they didn’t want me to speak out, but I would speak. So I guess it was the only way for me to maybe keep the Swazi citizens aware of what was happening. I didn’t want the story to die down as if Thulani’s been arrested, you know, he’s one of those rascals in prison. So I tried to keep the story going and to try and let people be aware that they were just practising their basic human right, which is freedom of expression. That was what I was trying to do, and Swazis understood what was happening, started supporting, started going to court to observe the trial. Different organisations then came out to support so it really worked, it really worked, somehow, I think.
Amnesty: And what do you feel that Amnesty was able to do to help in this situation?
Tanele: Amnesty - I don’t even know how to thank or even describe the way in which Amnesty really helped us. One thing Amnesty did that was really, really helpful: we started sending in letters through to government, a lot of letters from around the world. Everyone was sending in letters asking why they were arrested, so it irritated the government so they really wanted these people out. They really were asking, “Who is this Amnesty? Why are they so much interested in their case?” so I’d say, Amnesty was an angel because they came in at the right time, they did the right things, so we were able to irritate the right people and as a result created worldwide awareness about Thulani and Bekhi’s case. In that way, government was able to say, “You know what? We’ve had enough of the noise, we’re tired of these people – let’s release them.” So, for me, Amnesty was an angel [laughs].
Amnesty: And do either of you have a message you’d like to say to the Amnesty supporters who wrote letters and shared and signed petitions?
Tanele: You know, funnily enough I still have those letters. And, you know, when I’m bored or when I’m stressed, when it’s one of those days, I just open some of those letters - I read, I cry and the stress is relieved and I know that someone, somewhere is watching and someone, somewhere is supporting wholeheartedly. So the Amnesty members around the world – really, I don’t know what you would say, for me, they are everything. Because I know if anything would happen to Thulani, I know who to call is Amnesty. I know Amnesty will get a lawyer, I know Amnesty will be there all the way. So, I don’t know, really - I have no words. Amnesty’s contribution was more than I can even explain. There were letters, it was financial, it was emotional - Amnesty was there. They would ask: “How is Thulani in prison? Does he need books?”, they would send in money for books. “Is his law firm coping? Is there money for rent?” They would send in money for rent, so to me Amnesty was my god because I would just say, “Lord” and something will come through. So I really appreciate the work of all the volunteers, of all the staff in Amnesty because if it wasn’t for them… Maybe sometimes I would fall down, but I knew if I needed something, I would call someone in Amnesty and the response would be positive all the time.
Thulani: Obviously, prison is very lonely and I think the Swazi government was determined to make us appear to the world like we were ordinary, common law prisoners. As if we were accused of rape or murder or robbery, or one of those common law crimes. So the first thing I appreciate about Amnesty just to know that somebody believes you’re not a common law prisoner. So the decision that you made to say we are prisoners of conscience in itself meant a lot, let alone the letters that my wife is talking about. She would from time to time come with them in prison just to show me. They wouldn’t allow her to let me have those letters. They want to break you spirit, they want to make you feel you have been deserted, you are on your own, no one cares about you. You’ve just been made an outcast. So just to know that somebody out there in the world cares about your wellbeing, your safety, your dignity, your humanity as a prisoner, it lifts your spirit. So when she would come with some of those letters - some of them long, some of them short, some of them in English, French or Portuguese! Just to know that somebody’s is thinking about you. And many of them would be saying: “We support you, we love you, we are with you, we care for you and…”
Tanele: “Understand your cause…”
Thulani: “Understand your cause” – it really meant that some truths in the world are so universal and you can’t take them away from a human being. I can’t even speak about the financial support to my family and to my lawyer for the bills and for all the support. Just to know that somebody cared for you whilst you were being kept in that four walls of prison really meant it made the fight easy for one to continue defending your dignity, even when you knew that someone wants to suppress you. So I’m very thankful to Amnesty International. We hope that this type of help will continue to many prisoners around the world. As you rightly say, the space for democracy, the space to express yourself, the space to be who you are is shrinking every day. The world is dominated by autocratic regimes so we need to continue the fight, we need to support those people who are raising a voice against oppression and evil in the world.
Amnesty: If you had known what was going to happen, would you have changed things? Would you have not published the article? Would you not have gone in to this sort of work?
Thulani: When I wrote, I never thought that I would be arrested. I really felt I was expressing an opinion when I saw injustice happening to a fellow citizen. But if I knew I would have been arrested, I would have still written the same article. Surprisingly, I wrote another article complaining about the appointment of judges in Swaziland, because I think the manner of appointment of judges must be transparent, must be open, must be clear on how someone becomes a judge. So I wrote complaining about some appointment of some judges, and I referred to an article which had been published by one of the daily newspapers of Swaziland. And lucky, I mentioned one of the judges who then viewed the article to be defamatory so right now The Nation, Makhubu and myself are facing a suit from the sitting judge who said that we defamed him when we complained about what happened there, and referring to him as an example of how things can go wrong in the judiciary if the manner of appointment is not transparent and open.
So now you can see that I moved from a criminal case into a civil suit. He’s suing us for one million rands, which is a huge amount of money for a small magazine like The Nation and for poor people like me and Bekhi Makhubu. But the way we look at it is that there is a change of strategy. For the criminalization of free expression invites more attention to the state, but a civil suit would not invite the same amount of attention so there is a change of tactic from the government. That indicates to you that what we were complaining about before continues to be a problem except government has changed the strategy. But we will wait and see how the court deals with that. I and others do believe that courts are compromised, but the only hope is to defend yourself in a criminal matter or when you appear before a judge, it’s for him or her to decide fairly how the matter should be resolved, so the problems continue.
Amnesty: And when you were in prison were you able to visit and see your family? Because you have two boys, right?
Tanele: I had one boy at the time and he was about 2. I would explain but it was very difficult for him, because every day he would ask, or maybe if I’m packing the car he would run up, “Where’s daddy? Why isn’t daddy here?” I would tell him but he wouldn’t understand. But when I took him to visit the father in prison, you could see that he had questions at the back of his mind.
And now you can actually see they are closer I think because of the time that he spent away. So it was a very difficult time for me emotionally because I could see even Thulani, sometimes he would actually try and hold back tears. It was very painful but we had to try and live with that then. But we overcame it somehow because he came out, he found the son at school, so we really tried to work around that difficult situation.
Amnesty: and last question, what plans do you have for the future?
Thulani: It’s a very difficult time for Swaziland I think. There’s no doubt about that. So one is always caught in between your family and the struggle. And there can be no doubt that the struggle for human rights is very costly at a personal level and at a family level. But the question is whether you should stop struggling and focus on the narrow interests of your family and yourself. Which is very difficult for one to do, because all my life, I’ve been with many of my friends trying to fight for a better society. You find yourself having no choice but to continue and bear the consequences.
Because for as long as we live under a society where human rights are not respected, where democracy is not allowed to take its course, so long as we live in a society where one man with a few people continue to claim to have an obvious right to rule, we have to engage in the fight for a better society. At the heart of it is the fight to defend our dignity as a people. There can be no justification why some people can claim to be supreme over others. That’s the problem in Swaziland, the ruling royal family claims to have an obvious right to rule and it can’t be correct. If people stood up against the colonialism and people stood up against apartheid in South Africa and they stood up against segregation in the US – it’s the same type of mentality where a certain group of people feel that they are better than others, and therefore they must take the lead and others must follow. And I think we all agree that human rights say that we’re all equal we all have that reason, that power to reason and to distinguish between right and wrong, and I think the struggle for human rights is about fighting what is wrong in favour of what is right. And therefore I will continue doing so, until the king and his advisors see the light that there is a better life for all in a democratic society.