Furore over plans to bring foreign judges

STAFF REPORTER

MASERU – Plans to bring foreign judges to preside over high profile cases involving a group of soldiers including former army chief Tlali Kamoli accused of committing a slew of crimes over a two-year period were motivated by the need to ensure the trials produce widely acceptable verdicts. Attorney General King’s Counsel Haae Phoofolo last night told Public Eye government had opted for foreign judges because of “concerns about perceptions that may arise from various people or political sides if local judges heard the cases”.

Phoofolo said it was vitally important to remove any perception of bias or political influence when deciding the fate of the soldiers accused of murder, attempted murder and launching a bombing spree on selected prominent targets around Maseru in 2014. “Government is trying to be as transparent as possible in this legal criminal process. Remember, these are high profile cases not ordinary murder cases or a case of a drunken person killing someone in a bar. These are security men.

“There is need to completely remove any perception that the judges hearing the cases are not neutral,” said Phoofolo in reaction to reports some lawyers representing the accused soldiers planned to scuttle the plan to hire foreign judges. The lawyers - Zwelakhe Mda KC, Karabo Mohau KC, Advocate Letuka Molati and Motiea Teele KC - are preparing to robustly repel the government plan through the courts.

“There is no way we will allow the government to bring foreign judges to preside over our clients’ cases. We dare them to try,” Teele said this week. The lawyers’ argument that local judges are competent enough to handle the cases however drew a withering rebuke from Nqosa Mahao, brother to the tragic Lt Gen Maaparankoe Mahao who was shot and killed by fellow soldiers in June 2014.

Mahao last night charged his family had no confidence in the local judiciary’s capacity to produce an uncontested verdict, hence their appeal to for “external judges with a better capacity to produce judgment accepted by society at large.“It is disingenuous for anyone to say bringing in foreign judges is a break of the constitution. Those lawyers who today are crying foul and projecting themselves as defenders of the constitution are the same lawyers who were on the side of the same soldiers during the Phumaphi Commission and helped in the concealment of facts. There is an element of inconsistency about them,” Mahao said.

Public Eye made several attempts to get comment from the lawyers late last night but hit a brick wall as numerous calls to Mda were not answered while Teele’s number was unreachable. Teele early this week was reportedly quoted by a local radio station as saying Lesotho judges had the capacity to handle the cases and that the prosecution was ready to proceed. Unlike Mahao, Phoofolo dismissed the narrative that government had no faith in local judges, saying the toxic political environment in the country was likely to create a view of bias “one way or another” if local judges were involved.

“As government, we are of the view that judges who don’t know anybody here should come in and follow the evidence and decide the cases on their merits. “Even if a (foreign) judge does right or wrong there should be no perception that he favours one side,” he said. Both Mahao and Phoofolo said it was an undeniable fact that Lesotho was divided down the middle between opposition parties and ruling parties. This rift had permeated “virtually all state institutions and divided the nation to the last person”.

To cure this malady, at least for the duration of these high-profile trials that have the capacity of plunging the country into anarchy, Phoofolo said judges, “beyond South Africa maybe from Zambia, Malawi, Botswana or Zimbabwe” could come in.But he was quick to stress that Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara was leading the search for the judges although the final decision on who would get the job rests with the Judicial Service Commission (JSC).

“The decision on who gets appointed rests with the Judicial Service Commission as it will accept them or not. “It must be noted that it is the duty of the Chief Justice to secure the judges while government will assist her as much as possible. “We are not in so doing trying to interfere in the operation of the judiciary in this country,” said Phoofolo, adding it was the four lawyers’ democratic right to approach the court for relief. “Anyone is free to seek any remedy of any kind from the courts.”

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