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Convictions confound Swazi reform hopes

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24 July, 2014The conviction in Swaziland of a journalist and a human rights lawyer with ties to the labour movement does not bode well for the country’s reinstatement to a preferential trade deal with the USA.

The US Department of State has said it is “deeply concerned by the convictions of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and magazine editor Bheki Makhubu”. Sentencing of the pair has yet to be scheduled but they could face long prison sentences or a hefty fine.  

The press statement, dated 22 July, from Marie Harf, Deputy Department Spokesperson 2014, also added:

“Their convictions for contempt of court for publishing an article critical of the High Court of Swaziland—and their ongoing prolonged detention—appear to undermine respect for Swaziland’s human rights obligations, particularly the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in Swaziland’s own constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States strongly supports the universal fundamental freedom of expression and is deeply concerned by the actions of the Swazi Government.”

Apparel accounts for most of Swaziland’s exports to the US, which was valued at USD 50 million in 2013. Without duty free access under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), it is unlikely that these exports will remain competitive. US President Obama announced in June 2014 that Swaziland was no longer eligible for AGOA. This was a result of lack of progress over a number of years to make the required reforms to qualify for the preferential trading status, including respect for the rule of law and the right to organise. When the exclusion comes into effect on January 2015, concerns are that exports to the US will immediately plummet.

Maseko and Makhubu have served more than 100 days in prison since their arrest in March this year. Their conviction on 17 July 2014 has been condemned worldwide, not only as a violation of rights of Maseko and Makhubu, but also because it instils fear that will lead to self-censorship of the Swazi people on matters of the state for fear of arbitrary sanctions. It has also led to many questioning the credibility of the judiciary in Swaziland as an instrument of repression, serving the interests of King Mswati. Mswati rules Swaziland as an absolute monarchy that has been under a state of emergency since 1973. Sentencing has yet to be scheduled but they could face long prison sentences or a hefty fine.  

“We are distressed by this conviction, for what it means for human rights in Swaziland but also because we had hoped that the exclusion of Swaziland from AGOA may have prompted urgent reform,” says Fernando Lopes, Assistant General Secretary of IndustriALL. “This is not a good sign and we are deeply concerned for the precarious position of the garment sector in Swaziland now.”