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U.S. report slams Matekane’s regime

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… Accusing it of curtailing freedom of assembly and privacy.

Staff Reporter

In a stark departure from conditions observed in 2022, the government has been accused of severely curtailing the freedom of peaceful assembly last year, as detailed in the latest United States Department of State’s annual human rights report released this week.

Ntsokoane Samuel Matekane assumed office as prime minister towards the end of 2022, with his inauguration taking place at Setsoto Stadium in Maseru on October 28 of that year. However, Matekane’s administration has encountered scrutiny for its handling of dissent.

“On March 13, opposition Socialist Revolutionaries Party Youth League members applied for a permit to protest on March 24. Police declined to issue a permit on the grounds they would be unable to monitor the march, due to other commitments; however, police reportedly declined the permit for political reasons,” read the U.S. report.

The concerns raised by the U.S. Department of State regarding freedom of assembly in Lesotho align with those expressed by Amnesty International, a movement of 10 million people advocating for human rights globally.

Amnesty International emphasises the importance of holding those in power accountable and ensuring respect for international law.

Independent of any government or ideology, Amnesty International relies on membership and individual donations to fund its mission.

In its State of the World’s Human Rights report of April 2024 published this week, Amnesty International highlighted a troubling incident that occurred on May 23 last year.

According to the report, Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) officers forcefully suppressed peaceful protests led by communities affected by the construction of the Polihali Dam in the district of Mokhotlong.

“The protests, which took place during the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) Phase II launch, were against inadequate and delayed compensation, lack of consultation regarding the construction and other related issues,” Amnesty International stated.

Section 16 of the Lesotho Constitution enshrines the fundamental right of every individual to freely associate with others for various purposes, including ideological, religious, political, economic, labour, social, cultural, recreational, and similar activities.

However, this right is not absolute, as the Constitution also provides for certain exceptions.

According to the Constitution, no law or action undertaken under its authority shall be deemed inconsistent with or in violation of individual freedoms if it serves certain specified purposes.

These include:

  • Safeguarding the interests of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health.
  • Protecting the rights and freedoms of other individuals.
  • Imposing restrictions on public officers when deemed necessary.

In its report, the U.S. State Department also highlighted ongoing issues regarding child abuse in Lesotho, despite existing laws prohibiting such acts.

The report noted that abuse remained a significant problem, particularly affecting orphans and other vulnerable children within the society.

According to the report, penalties for convictions related to mistreatment, neglect, abandonment, or exposure of a child to abuse included sentences of up to two months’ imprisonment along with nominal monetary fines.

However, despite these legal provisions, instances of neglect, common assault, sexual assault, and forced elopement persist.

“Neglect, common assault, sexual assault, and forced elopement occurred. The government did not always enforce the law effectively,” the report read.

Both the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International reports highlighted instances of arbitrary interference with privacy and personal property.

According to the U.S. report, despite constitutional provisions prohibiting arbitrary interference with privacy, there were instances where law enforcement authorities, including the National Security Service (NSS), confiscated the mobile phone of Moeketsi Shale, the deputy spokesperson of the main opposition Democratic Congress (DC).

The U.S. said this confiscation was purportedly justified by allegations of Shale’s involvement in the killing of Tšenolo Radio Station journalist Ralikonelo Joki.

“However, on June 20, the Constitutional Court ruled the warrant authorizing the seizure as unconstitutional, recognizing Shale’s right to privacy and freedom from arbitrary seizure of property,” read the U.S. report.

Similarly, Amnesty International’s report revealed that in May last year, during Matekane’s absence, a minister in his office, Limpho Tau, signed warrants permitting NSS officers to confiscate and retain mobile phones and other sources of information belonging to opposition politicians, Basotho National Party (BNP) leader Machesetsa Mofomobe and Shale.

“The NSS accused them of involvement in the killing of radio personality Ralikonelo Joki. Following this, the high court declared Section 26 of the National Security Act, which allows for such executive warrants, unconstitutional,” read the Amnesty International report.

The U.S. State Department noted that the overall human rights situation in Lesotho remained largely unchanged throughout 2023.

It said significant human rights issues included credible reports of: arbitrary or unlawful killings; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; arbitrary arrest or detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious government corruption; extensive gender-based violence, including domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child, early, and forced marriage, and other forms of such violence; and the existence of unenforced laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults.

It further said that while impunity was a problem, the government took credible steps to identify and punish officials who may have committed human rights abuses.

“Nevertheless, the process of investigation, prosecution, and trial was slow,” the report read.

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