Capital: Mbabane
Population: 1,185,000

Political Rights Score: 7 *
Civil Liberties Score: 5 *
Status: Not Free


The authorities in Swaziland continued to crack down on democracy advocates and curb critical media outlets in 2009, often by invoking the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act. However, in September a court acquitted and released Mario Masuku, leader of the People's United Democratic Movement, who had been arrested on terrorism and sedition charges in 2008.

Swaziland regained its independence from Britain in 1968, and an elected Parliament was added to the traditional monarchy. In 1973, King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of a tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself an absolute monarch. After Sobhuza's death in 1982, a protracted power struggle ended with the coronation of King Mswati III in 1986.

A new constitution implemented in 2006 removed the king's ability to rule by decree, but it reaffirmed his absolute authority over the cabinet, Parliament, and the judiciary. It also maintained the tinkhundla system – in which local chiefs control elections for 55 of the 65 seats in the House of Assembly, the lower house of Parliament – and did not overturn the ban on political parties. The charter provided for limited freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, as well as limited rights for women, but the king could suspend those rights at his discretion.

Also in 2006, security forces arrested members of the prodemocracy People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) following bomb attacks the previous year. Sixteen PUDEMO members, including Secretary General Bonginkosi Dlamini, were charged with treason, attempted murder, and malicious damage to government property. The suspects were later freed on bail.

During 2008 there were over 10 bomb attacks on government targets, although none killed any officials or civilians. In September, a bomb blast at a bridge near the king's palace in Lozitha killed one of the bombers, a member of PUDEMO. The government later banned PUDEMO, along with four other groups, under the newly enacted Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA). PUDEMO leader Mario Masuku was arrested on charges of terrorism and sedition, but a court acquitted him in September 2009, citing lack of evidence. Security forces later violently dispersed about 50 activists and journalists gathered outside the Matsapha correctional facility to await Masuku's release.

Swaziland has the world's highest rate of HIV infection; estimates range from 26 to 33.4 percent of the sexually active population. In 2009, only about 32,000 Swazis were receiving antiretroviral drug treatment, out of an estimated 62,000 who require it. Swaziland also has the highest rate of tuberculosis infection. That disease, aggravated by HIV/AIDS, remains the country's leading cause of death.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Swaziland is not an electoral democracy. King Mswati III is an absolute monarch with ultimate authority over the cabinet, legislature, and judiciary. Of the House of Assembly's 65 members, 55 are elected by popular vote within the tinkhundla system, in which local chiefs vet all candidates. The king appoints the other 10 members. The king also appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, with the remainder selected by the House of Assembly. Parliament members, all of whom serve five-year terms, are not allowed to initiate legislation. Traditional chiefs govern designated localities and typically report directly to the king.

Political parties are banned, but there are political associations, the two largest being PUDEMO and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), although PUDEMO was declared a terrorist organization in 2008. It and other prodemocracy groups boycotted the November 2008 House of Assembly elections.

Corruption is a major problem. The monarchy spends lavishly despite the largely impoverished population, and members of Parliament engage in fraud and graft. The government's Anti-Corruption Unit was not authorized to seize assets or enforce penalties on both bribe payers and bribe takers until 2006, nearly a decade after it was created. Swaziland was ranked 79 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The king can suspend constitutional rights to free expression at his discretion, and these rights are severely restricted in practice, especially with respect to speech on political issues or the royal family. Publishing criticism of the monarchy is banned, and self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are routinely subject to threats and attacks by the authorities. The attorney general and other officials have threatened journalists with arrest under the STA since its passage in 2008. Several defamation lawsuits were filed in 2009, though some were dismissed by the courts. South African media are available, and both the Swazi Observer and independent Times of Swaziland occasionally criticize the government. The country's only independent radio station broadcasts religious programming; four radio stations that received operating licenses in 2008 had them revoked in 2009. The government does not restrict access to the internet, but few Swazis can afford access.

Freedom of religion is respected in practice but not explicitly protected in the constitution. Academic freedom is limited by self-censorship. While Swazis criticize the government in private discussions, they are less free to criticize the monarchy itself.

The government has restricted freedoms of assembly and association, and permission to hold political gatherings has often been denied. Prodemocracy protesters are routinely dispersed and arrested by police. The STA grants the government sweeping powers to declare an organization a "terrorist group," and it has already been widely abused by authorities, according to Amnesty International. Police harassment and surveillance of civil society organizations has increased. In April 2009, a demonstration by church and labor groups calling for free education resulted in clashes between police and demonstrators.

Swaziland has active labor unions, and the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the largest labor organization, has led demands for democratization. However, government pressure – including the repeated arrest of SFTU leader Jan Sithole – has greatly limited union operations. Workers in all areas of the economy, including the public sector, can join unions, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized. Security forces violently dispersed large March 2008 strikes by public transport and textile workers in the country's worst labor unrest for decades. Some of the strikers vandalized Asian-owned shops; Swaziland's textile factories are owned by Taiwanese firms.

The dual judicial system includes courts based on Roman-Dutch law and traditional courts using customary law. The judiciary is independent in most civil cases, although the king has ultimate judicial powers, and the royal family and government often refuse to respect rulings with which they disagree. The Swazi High Court has made a number of notable antigovernment rulings in recent years, and this trend continued in 2009 with the acquittal of Mario Masuku.

According to the U.S. State Department, there were numerous incidents of police torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths in custody in 2009. Security forces generally operate with impunity. In the last four months of 2008, the army was deployed to man checkpoints throughout the country due to unrest, and new army camps were set up in parts of northern Swaziland that were believed to be sympathetic to PUDEMO. This military presence continued at a reduced level in 2009. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are subject to torture, beatings, rape, and a lack of sanitation. While the constitution prohibits torture, the ban is not enforceable in court. The spread of HIV/AIDS is a major problem in Swazi prisons.

The constitution grants women equal rights and legal status as adults. However, women's rights are still very restricted in practice. While both the legal code and customary law provide some protection against gender-based violence, it is common and often tolerated with impunity. In 2007, a survey found that one-third of Swazi women had been subjected to sexual violence and two-thirds had been beaten or abused.

*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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