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Swazi activist tortured and left sentenced to 15 years under repressive terror laws


A pro-democracy protest in Swaziland seen outside the Savoy Hotel. Flickr user Garry Knight under a Creative Commons Licence

Where is the support for Zonke Dlamini, asks his co-accused, Bheki Dlamini, who was released without charge. By Peter Kenworthy.

Activist Zonke Dlamini was sentenced to 15 years in prison three years ago, on 28 February 28 2014, for allegedly petrol bombing the houses of two Swazi officials, an MP and a high-ranking police officer.

He denies the charges and says he was tortured during his interrogation, but his case has been more or less forgotten and he has subsequently not been able to appeal his sentence, says his co-accused, Swaziland Youth Congress President Bheki Dlamini.

In the 28 July 2010 edition of the Swazi Observer, Zonke said he was interrogated and tortured by 18 officers upon arrest. ‘I declared my innocence but was punched in the face … and told to admit my role as one of the operatives of an operation mastermind by the banned SWAYOCO to bomb houses of prominent people.’”

Charged under ‘inherently repressive’ terror act

Both Zonke, who is also a member of SWAYOCO, and Bheki, were charged under Swaziland's Suppression of Terrorism Act. Both dissociated themselves from the petrol bombings.

Zonke was found guilty on two of the three counts of petrol bombing while Bheki was acquitted and released, in what the judge referred to as ‘evil’ and ‘indefensible acts’ of ‘terrorism’ that ‘threatened national security’ and ‘peace and stability’ in Swaziland, including ‘its tourism and economy generally’.

The sentences ‘will send out a message to others’, the judge concluded.

Amnesty International has called Swaziland's Suppression of Terrorism Act, which defines terrorism in sweeping terms, an ‘inherently repressive’ act that is ‘used to suppress dissent’.

Amnesty furthermore wrote in their 2011 Annual Report that the court was informed that Zonke and Bheki had been 'subjected to suffocation torture' and that Zonke's confession (that led to the arrest of Bheki) was allegedly ‘extracted under duress’.

A humble and dedicated man

According to Bheki, Zonke is a politically astute and humble man who never complained about his fate and who is dedicated to the struggle for freedom and democracy in Swaziland. He got to know Zonke when at court and through smuggling letters to each other’s cells.

When Zonke was arrested, he left a three-month-old baby and an extended family that he was economically responsible for. He is also an epileptic who needs constant supervision.

‘My heart is bleeding when I remember the pain of prison and what Zonke is still going through. When Zonke was arrested, he was badly tortured by the Swazi police. Now he suffers from a persistent headache because of the torture,’ says Bheki, who was himself tortured after his and Zonke's arrest in June 2010.

Both went on a hunger strike in 2013 to protest against the prison conditions and the fact that there case was yet to be concluded three years after they were arrested.

Desperately needs appeal, help

While there was a campaign for the release of Bheki, who was eventually released after having spent nearly four years in prison, and his story was told in an award-winning Danish documentary, Swaziland – Africa’s last monarchy, Zonke case does not get the attention it deserves, Bheki Dlamini says.
'Swaziland – Africa’s last monarchy' is a documentary about activist Bheki Dlamini by Danish journalist Tom Heinemann. The film describes the fight for democracy and socio-economic justice in the tiny sub-Saharan absolute monarchy of Swaziland through the eyes of Bheki Dlamini, a young activist and leading member of Swaziland’s largest banned political party, the People's United Democratic Movement.

'The tragedy about Zonke's case is that it doesn't get the necessary attention, be it amongst the Swazi civil society, the political parties and the Swazi media. When the EU called for the release of political prisoners, Zonke's name was missing from the list of four political prisoners that were eventually released,' says Bheki.

Bheki believes that while Zonke faced injustice by the Swazi High Court, few came to his rescue. This should have been the role of Swaziland’s civil society and members of the international community, but their inaction has had serious consequences for Zonke, he says.

'As Zonke was convicted in 2014, he was not able to file an appeal because he has no lawyer to take up his case. Where are the NGO’s claiming to be fighting for human rights, where are Lawyers for Human Rights, where is our conscience as a people when we watch such gross injustice happening to someone who is trying to fight the very same regime we claim to be against?

‘He desperately needs to appeal his conviction and sentencing. I have been part of the trial and know that he has a high chance of an acquittal because he was sentenced unfairly. There is no direct evidence linking him to the crimes he is accused of. He was made a sacrificial lamb by the judge, who decided to acquit me and convict Zonke to appease the powers that be,’ Bheki Dlamini says.

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