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Freedom in the World 2010 - Lesotho

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 1 June 2010
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010 - Lesotho, 1 June 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c1a1ea728.html [accessed 25 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Maseru
Population: 2,135,000

Political Rights Score: 3 *
Civil Liberties Score: 3 *
Status: Partly Free

Status Change Explanation

Lesotho's political rights rating declined from 2 to 3 and its status from Free to Partly Free due to unresolved disputes over legislative seats from the 2007 and 2008 elections and a breakdown in internationally mediated negotiations between the government and opposition.

Overview

Unknown gunman opened fire on Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili's home in April 2009 in an apparent assassination attempt, which was widely linked to continuing disputes between the ruing Lesotho Congress for Democracy and opposition parties over results from the 2007 snap legislative elections and 2008 by-elections. Positions on both sides hardened in 2009, and in September, mediation efforts by the Southern African Development Community failed after Lesotho's government refused to negotiate any longer.


Lesotho gained independence from Britain in 1966, and the following 30 years featured a number of military coups, annulled elections, and suspensions of constitutional rule. Parliamentary elections in 1998, although judged free and fair by international observers, set off protests after the results gave the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party 79 out of 80 constituency seats with just 60.5 percent of the vote. Troops from South Africa and Botswana – under the mandate of the 14-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) – were summoned to restore order, and an agreement that year stipulated that future elections must be supervised by an independent commission and include 40 additional, proportionally determined seats in the National Assembly. In the 2002 elections, the LCD captured 57.7 percent of the vote and 77 of 80 constituency seats, while the opposition Basotho National Party (BNP) won 21 of the new proportional-representation seats.

Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili called snap elections in late 2006 after 18 members of the LCD – led by former cabinet minister Tom Thabane – defected to join a new opposition party, the All Basotho Congress (ABC). The February 2007 polls, originally set for May, left a shortened, 90-day timetable that resulted in hasty preparations by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Nevertheless, the elections were declared free and fair by domestic and international observers. According to the IEC, the LCD won 61 of the 80 constituency seats, with the ABC capturing 17. The commission allocated 21 of the 40 proportional-representation seats to the LCD-allied National Independent Party (NIP) and 10 to the Lesotho Workers' Party (LWP), the ABC's ally. Six other parties were also awarded seats.

Opposition parties – including the ABC/LWP and the BNP, which lost 18 seats – disputed the allocations and called a general strike. The strike was halted after the SADC agreed to mediate, but the talks failed to formally resolve the dispute. In 2008, 43 by-elections were held, the results of which were also contested by the opposition. ABC supporters protested outside the office of the IEC and held some workers hostage until the protest was broken up by police. In July 2009, the head SADC mediator, former Botswana president Sir Ketumile Masire, ended his mission in Lesotho, accusing the government of avoiding direct talks with the opposition. The following month, a call by the opposition for a work boycott in Maseru failed to gain significant support. In late 2009, the Christian Council of Lesotho took over facilitating the dialogue from the SADC, but no progress had been made between the parties by year's end.

In April 2009, Prime Minister Mosisili was the target of an assassination attempt when several gunmen opened fire on his house; one of the assailants was killed in the ensuing gunfight.Government officials and some journalists linked the assassination attempt to the election dispute, depicting it as a failed coup. Seven people were subsequently arrested, and their trials were pending at year's end.

Drought has plagued the country since 2001, leading to critical food shortages and the dependence of some 450,000 people on food aid. Lesotho is also scarred by an adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of about 24 percent, one of the world's highest. The government announced in 2005 that it would offer free HIV testing to all citizens, the first such program in the world. By the end of 2006, approximately 28,000 of the country's 58,000 infected citizens were receiving anti-retroviral treatment.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Lesotho is an electoral democracy. King Letsie III serves as ceremonial head of state. Under a system introduced in 2002, 80 of the 120 seats in the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, are filled by first-past-the-post constituency votes, and 40 are filled by proportional representation. Members serve five-year terms, and the leader of the majority party becomes prime minister. The Senate, the upper house of Parliament, consists of Lesotho's 22 traditional principal chiefs, who wield considerable authority in rural areas, and 11 other members appointed on the advice of the prime minister.

Snap elections held in 2007 resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling LCD and its ally, the NIP. Opposition parties – including the ABC, LWP, and BNP – continue to contest the results of both the 2007 polls and 2008 by-elections, accusing the government of poll rigging, gerrymandering, and unfairly allocating seats. In 2008, the government announced a new digital voter-registration system designed to curtail fraud.

The government has aggressively prosecuted corruption cases. In recent years, over a dozen officials and international construction firms have been investigated – and a number of both convicted – for bribery and other crimes associated with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), a multibillion-dollar dam and watershed project. Lesotho was ranked 89 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press, though press freedom has declined in recent years. Independent newspapers and radio stations routinely criticize the government, while state-owned print and broadcast media tend to reflect the views of the ruling party. In 2008, the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) increased the cost of broadcasting licenses sevenfold, from $400 to $3,000, drawing objections from press freedom advocates. Among other problems, media criticism of the government can result in heavy libel penalties, the government has been accused of withdrawing advertisements from critical outlets, and reporters are occasionally harassed or attacked. In September 2009, Marafaele Mohloboli, a Lesotho Times journalist and local press freedom advocate, received a death threat at her home. The government does not restrict internet access.

Freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country is widely observed. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. Several nongovernmental organizations operate openly. In October 2009, the ruling LCD introduced the Public Meetings and Procession Bill to parliament. If passed, the law would require prior approval from local chiefs, the police, or relevant government officials in order to hold a public meeting; the bill was still pending at year's end. While labor rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the union movement is weak and fragmented, and many employers in the textile sector do not allow union activity.

Courts are nominally independent, but higher courts are especially subject to outside influence. The large backlog of cases often leads to trial delays and lengthy pretrial detention. Mistreatment of civilians by security forces reportedly continues. Prisons are dilapidated and severely overcrowded and lack essential health services; instances of torture and excessive force have been reported. An independent ombudsman's office is tasked with protecting citizens' rights. A 2009 study by the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa found that while the office has largely fulfilled its tasks of combating maladministration, dealing with injustice in the public service, and protecting human rights, it has largely failed to effectively fight corruption.

Tensions between Basotho and the small Chinese business community have led to minor incidents of violence.

The constitution bars gender-based discrimination, but customary practice and law still restrict women's rights in areas including property and inheritance. While their husbands are alive, women married under customary law have the status of minors in civil courts and may not enter into binding contracts. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread, but is becoming less socially acceptable. In 2006, the government implemented a policy of improved medical care for victims of rape. A 2005constitutional amendment reserves a third of the seats in municipal councilsfor women.


*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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