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Human Rights Lawyer and activist Thulani Maseko pictured giving an interview to Agence France-Presse on September 22, 2018, in Lobamba, eSwatini. Maseko was killed on January 21, 2023, at his home in Luhleko, Bhunya, eSwatini.  © 2018 GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – The authorities in Eswatini should allow for the establishment of an independent, impartial, and transparent investigation into the brutal killing of prominent human rights lawyer and opposition activist, Thulani Maseko, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 21, 2023, Maseko was fatally shot through the window at his home, where he sat with his wife and two children, ages 10 and 6, in Luhleko, Bhunya, 50 kilometers from the capital, Mbabane. Hours earlier, King Mswati III, during an address to his Traditional Regiments at Engabezweni Royal Residence in Matsapha, warned those calling for democratic reforms that mercenaries would deal with them. The king maintains that pro-democracy activists cause instability in the country. Human rights activists in the country have accused the government of having a hand in Maseko’s killing.

“The brutal killing of Maseko is the latest in a series of chilling attacks on pro-democracy activists in Eswatini” said Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, deputy director in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. “It is essential to promptly conduct an independent, thorough, and effective investigation capable of identifying those responsible.”

Maseko was the chairperson of the pro-democracy Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), a coalition of civil society groups and political parties leading the campaign for democracy in Eswatini.

He championed democratic reforms, calling for meaningful dialogue, and interfacing with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ on Politics Defense and Security regarding a political crisis in Eswatini that began with protests in 2021, playing a key role in discussions about the country’s transitional political process.

Maseko had a long history of activism, including representing the Swaziland National Ex-Miners Workers Association in their challenge of the government. The group contended that the government had not upheld the provisions of the 2005 Constitution, which stipulates that Swazi children would receive free primary education within three years after the constitution went into effect, which was confirmed by the High Court in 2009.

In 2014, Maseko and Bhekithemba Makhubu, editor of the Nation magazine were convicted of contempt of court for comments they made in two articles published in the magazine, raising concerns about the country’s judicial system, including the lack of judicial independence and impartiality.

In 2018, Maseko started judicial proceedings against the government for not consulting the public or engaging Parliament after King Mswati III unilaterally changed the name of the country from Swaziland to Eswatini.

Maseko’s killing has heightened the sense of fear among human rights activists in the country. Sibusiso Nhlabatsi, a human rights lawyer and a colleague of Maseko told Human Rights Watch that: “To be frank, I don’t feel safe, and nobody does. From what I’ve got from many lawyers, especially those in the human rights space, people are contemplating running away from the country.”

Most recently, on December 7, 2022, there was an assassination attempt against Maxwell Nkambule, the lawyer representing Swazi pro-democracy protesters who stand accused of arson attacks and killing police officers.

The government expressed condolences for Maseko’s death, saying that “Maseko’s demise is a loss to the Nation and his footprints as a human rights lawyer are there as proof of his contribution to the country.” The government assured the public that the country’s security forces had already begun investigating the circumstances of the death and that his killers would be brought to book.

In 2021, Eswatini was rocked by waves of protests amid a drastic deterioration in the human rights situation and lack of political reforms. The authorities responded by banning protests and deployed police and soldiers who shot at protesters indiscriminately with live ammunition.

Human Rights Watch had found that in October 2021, Eswatini police fired live ammunition and teargas into a bus full of people traveling to the capital, Mbabane, to protest the incarceration of two pro-democracy members of parliament. Witnesses said that some of the bus passengers were injured and had to be hospitalized, the rest were turned back and prevented from going into the city centre.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, then-chairperson of the Organ on Politics, Defense and Security Cooperation of the SADC, visited Eswatini at the end of 2021, leading to an agreement for a national dialogue forum as a step to resolve the political turmoil in the country. But the talks have yet to take place despite several attempts by SADC to initiate the same.

The Eswatini authorities should establish an independent investigation into Maseko’s killing, as well as attacks against other pro-democracy activists since 2021, Human Rights Watch said.

The SADC should step up to mediate the political crisis in Eswatini and support the establishment of the much-awaited national dialogue, Human Rights Watch said. The South African government should also open an investigation into allegations that South African mercenaries and private military are operating in Eswatini at the request of the king and whether they have links to the killings of pro-democracy activists, including Thulani Maseko.

“Africa’s last absolute monarch needs to listen to and respond to the aspirations of the people of Eswatini, and their demands to exercise their democratic, political rights,” Budoo-Scholtz said. “The authorities need to immediately initiate a meaningful and all-inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogue, that includes the promotion and protection of human rights, the rule of law and democracy, so that no more activists face harassment or are killed.”

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