Mbabane – Swaziland’s Suppression of Terrorism Act, which has been used by government to ban political groups opposing King Mswati’s rule, has been declared unconstitutional by the country’s High Court.
A full-bench of the court ruled the act null and void, opening the door to the possibility that proscribed pro-democracy groups may openly operate in sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
“The respondents have been found woefully wanting,” said Judge Mbutfo Mamba in summation of government’s attempt to justify a law that curbs basic freedoms such as assembly and speech.
Swaziland’s courts do not automatically review legislation. Lawyer Thulani Maseko, who recently spent 16 months in prison for criticising government, brought the case to court along with Mario Masuku, president of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo).
Government used the Suppression of Terrorism Act to ban Pudemo in 2008. Masuku was charged with treason and awaits trial for publicly uttering the name of his organisation at a May Day rally in 2014. The terrorism act forbids public mention of a proscribed entity such as Pudemo.
The law was hastily passed in 2008 after a failed attempt to blow up a bridge near Mswati’s palace at Lozitha was linked to a Pudemo member. Pudemo denounced the use of violence and reiterated its non-violent policy toward achieving democracy in the country. Although organised political opposition to royal rule has been outlawed since 1973, government saw an opportunity to brand Pudemo as terrorists and further bury the group.
International human rights groups such as London-based Amnesty International and Washington-based Human Rights Watch have criticised the law as an act of political oppression disguised as anti-terror legislation.
In his judgment, Judge Mamba, supported by High Court judges Jacobus Annandale and Nkululeko Hlope, took government to task for the act’s lack of definition of what constituted an act of terrorism and what precise damage to society the act sought to prevent.
In his defence of the act, attorney general Majahenkaba Dlamini argued in effect that government knew a terrorist when it saw one and that terrorists’ damage to society was self-explanatory.
“The judgment emphasizes the importance of protecting freedom of expression and association,” human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze told the Swazi Observer newspaper.
“According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media.”
With the act declared null and void by the court, Pudemo can no longer be considered a terrorist organisation and Masuku may no longer be charged for uttering its name. But Masuku’s case will likely remain open if government chooses to appeal the High Court ruling.
African News Agency (ANA)
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