The ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy party won all but one seat in parliament in national elections held in May. Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle retired and was replaced by Pakalitha Mosisili. Opposition parties challenged the election results through the courts and held protests outside the palace of King Letsie iii in August and September. Their supporters, as well as government supporters, set up impromptu roadblocks, paralysing business. The police and army initially did not intervene. In August and September, however, there were sporadic armed clashes involving pro- and anti-government supporters, and sections of the police and army, as well as targeted attacks on members of both main political groupings. At least five people died and scores were injured.
A commission chaired by a South African constitutional court judge into the running of the elections concluded in its September report that, notwithstanding irregularities, the results were valid.
On 11 September junior army officers detained more than 20 of their senior officers and held some government ministers in their homes. The men were released after the intervention of South African negotiators.
On 16 September Prime Minister Mosisili made the first of several appeals to South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for military assistance, stating that an army coup was imminent. On 22 September the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), and later the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), entered the country (see South Africa entry). They captured the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) barracks in the capital Maseru and at Katse in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project dam area; at least 25 LDF soldiers and at least nine South African soldiers were killed. Some 150 LDF soldiers were kept prisoner by the SANDF but later released unconditionally after mediation by the International Committee of the Red Cross. About 1,000 SANDF and BDF soldiers were still in Lesotho at the end of the year.
A number of civilians died, some during the military conflict, others during the violence, looting and arson which erupted in Maseru and elsewhere in the following days. On 24 September a night curfew was imposed. Incidents of arbitrary killings, death threats and other politically motivated violence by opposition and government supporters against their opponents continued into October. There were also incidents of ill-treatment of civilians and arrested soldiers by the SANDF.
Journalists were subjected to death threats and other forms of harassment in the context of the conflict and the SANDF intervention.
Mediation talks chaired by South African government representatives ended with all political parties agreeing on draft legislation for the establishment of an Interim Political Authority (ipa), which was adopted by parliament on 3 November. The ipa provides for a body, composed of two representatives from the government and from each political party, to undertake reforms of the electoral system and to prepare for general elections within 18 months. The ipa must ensure free political activity prior to the elections.
There were concerns at prolonged and unfair trial proceedings, and ill-treatment of detainees. In October, 33 LDF soldiers were arrested in connection with the September mutiny and detained without charge at the Maximum Security Prison, Maseru. The 33 soldiers were held in cells which lacked adequate light, warmth, bedding and sanitation. At least six were interrogated at night by members of the military and police at various locations. At least one detainee had a gun pointed at him during interrogation. Relatives of some of the soldiers brought an application in the High Court for an order to allow the detainees access to their lawyer. In November the High Court ruled that the state had to charge the soldiers detained in the Maximum Security Prison within eight days or release them. In December the soldiers were charged with mutiny and allowed to consult their lawyers. Following some releases and further arrests, 50 soldiers were held at the end of the year.
The trial of 33 police officers in relation to the February 1997 mutiny (see Amnesty International Report 1998) began in February. Only a few witnesses had been heard prior to the destruction of the trial records and the chambers of the presiding judge during the looting and arson in Maseru in September. Fire also destroyed the record of the hearing on a third bail application on behalf of the accused. The trial resumed late in the year but was not concluded. Six of the accused, facing additional charges in relation to the 1995 Maseru Central Police Station shootings in which senior police officers were shot dead (see Amnesty International Report 1996), had still not been formally indicted by the end of the year.
In October police sergeant Thabo Tsukulu and army private Mokitimi Senekane, who together with Attorney Haae Phoofolo had been charged in 1997 with treason, were released on bail (see Amnesty International Report 1998). They had not been brought to trial by the end of the year.
Torture and ill-treatment by police were reported. At least four workers at a garment factory in Maseru, who were among 10 workers arrested in March during a labour dispute, were allegedly tortured in custody. Rekselisitsoe Nonyana said that he was denied food, hit with batons in the stomach, kicked and slapped, and tied to a tree before he was released without charge four days later. Five of those arrested were held beyond the legally allowed 48 hours before being brought to court and charged. None had been brought to trial by the end of the year.
In October a 16-year-old youth involved in protests at the palace was allegedly punched and kicked in the face and forced to do strenuous exercises by police at Maseru Central Police Station. He was released without charge and required medical treatment.
In September police administering the night curfew allegedly forced two women to lie down at the roadside and whipped them on their buttocks. The women were returning to their homes before the curfew hour and were too frightened to bring a charge against the police.
There were reports of killings and injuries as a result of police using lethal force in apparent violation of international standards. On 13 February police officers fired without warning into a crowd of workers in the compound of a garment factory in Ha-Thetsane, Maseru, killing a young woman, Libuseng Ramolata, and injuring dozens of others. One, Seabata Sehlabaka, died later from his injuries. According to the Commissioner of Police, one officer was charged with opening fire without orders. Other officers allegedly involved in the incident remained on duty.
On 17 August police fired on hundreds of protesters outside the palace. Although there were reports during August that a number of protesters were armed and that some police were injured, on 17 August police officers appeared to have used excessive force when they opened fire in response to protesters who were shouting abuse at them after the officers had allegedly beaten a protester. A 16-year-old girl died from a gunshot wound to her head; around 30 other people were injured. Another protester died later from his injuries.
In January a judicial commission of inquiry released its report into the 1996 shooting by police of construction workers at Butha-Buthe (see Amnesty International Report 1997). The commission found that the police contingent sent to clear the work camp had used "unreasonable force" inside the compound and "excessive force" in clearing workers from the surrounding area. The commission condemned police firing on an ambulance and the detention for three days without charge of the ambulance driver and workers assisting him. The commission also condemned worksite private security personnel for firing on the workers and the ambulance, and recommended that the Director of Public Prosecutions consider prosecuting those involved.
In January the death sentence imposed on Tahleho Letuka was commuted on appeal to a prison term. No new death sentences were reported.
Amnesty International expressed concern to the authorities about the detention and ill-treatment of trade unionists in March. In October an Amnesty International delegation visited Lesotho to conduct research and raise human rights concerns with the Lesotho and South African authorities. The delegates met officials, local human rights organizations and victims of human rights abuses and their relatives. They also visited 33 detained LDF soldiers at the Maximum Security Prison.
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