MASERU – Parliamentarians from both sides of the political divide this week condemned the spike in cases of police brutality, although Prime Minister Thomas Thabane seemed to claw back his stance when he hinted torture was acceptable in controlled circumstances.
Thabane’s forked contribution to the debate, especially his suggestion that global powers were dictating and neutering local customs on pain of withdrawing crucial financial aid, yesterday provoked sharp rebuke from rights groups and analysts.
Thabane said Basotho had lost their ways and “by sacrificing their ways, culture and integrity” to continue getting financial assistance from the international community.
In a baffling statement, Thabane defended the use of corporal punishment, saying it was justifiable in traditional African societies to stem waywardness and shouldn’t be discarded in deference to foreign values.
The maverick octogenarian whose political life is littered with missteps as he is known not to shy away from controversy, admitted encouraging police officers to assault suspects when “no one was watching” to aide investigations.
This method – now deemed crude and inhumane – he said, was “part of African ways of disciplining criminals”.
“Basotho have lost their ways and are influenced by foreign countries to do things their way. Developed countries like America and European countries who also have their own ways of living, own types of crimes that they are also struggling to stop making financial offers to the country with conditions as though the countries lead the same kind of life.
“It is a pity that we have lost our ways for the sake of money from countries that also failed to maintain and control their own countries,” he said.
According to him, it was time for Basotho to introspect and identify causes of the problems afflicting the country, adding this way Basotho can prescribe remedies to self-induced problems and those parachuted from abroad.
If giving up foreign aid – which takes care of a significant chunk of the country’s development needs – was the panacea to some of the country’s problems, then Basotho should be prepared to swallow this bitter pill.
He said it is also a time for Basotho to decide if they really need to compromise their beliefs and culture or reject international assistance that comes with strings that divert them away from their roots.
This after he had expressed disquiet with the growing number of cases of extrajudicial killings blamed on the police.
Thabane said impunity had taken root in the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) because perpetrators were not brought to justice.
He said all mysterious deaths should be investigated to remove the notion among Basotho that some lives do not matter.
He said he had told police officers on several occasions what to do and what not to do when handling suspects.
Parliamentarians, however, unanimously agreed police brutality had sullied the reputation of the country and scared away investors adding that if this behaviour persisted, the country could lose the United States-sponsored Millennium Challenge Corporate second compact.
Democratic Congress (DC) leader Mathibeli Mokhothu said the police service is a key cog in governance and its members should be re-trained to improve professionalism.
Mokhothu added that in order for the problem in the institution to be uprooted, politicians should not interfere with the sector, which he said had lost its dignity and had been sidetracked.
He revealed 43 people had died in police custody during interrogation in less than two years which he said had imperiled the country’s international stoke.
The killings had also traumatised the country and innocent officers who are not part of the criminal syndicates in uniform but are mocked for the actions of a few.
Serialong Qoo of Malingoaneng constituency emphasised the country should neither tolerate crime nor killings of citizens by police officers.
He stressed police officers were trained to arrest criminals and send them to court where their fate should be decided, not otherwise.
According to him, police brutality has not just tainted the reputation of the police and the security sector but has also cost the country a lot of money which was used to compensate families of victims.
He also alleged government was selective in handling the scourge as it let police officers commit crimes with impunity while soldiers are arrested to account for their wrongs.
Selibe Mochoboroane of Thabana Morena constituency said extrajudicial killings during interrogation were unacceptable and inexcusable.
He lauded Mafeteng police officers who he said dealt with dangerous criminals but had not caused even a single death.
Criminal law experts yesterday said Basotho police tended to arrest suspects to investigate, instead of adhering to international policing standards which enjoined officers to arrest suspects after thorough investigation.
US Ambassador Rebecca Gonzales recently warned Lesotho’s bid for the second MCC compact could be ruined by mounting evidence of police brutality and corruption.
“I am deeply concerned about alarming reports of corruption and police brutality – behaviour that is unacceptable and non-negotiable. The consequences of an interrupted compact development will not be as serious as the negative impact on the people of Lesotho caused by failure to address these critical issues,” Gonzales said.
Rights body Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) has indicated that human rights violations were rampant in the country and has laid the blame squarely on the government and blundering security agencies.
“Police brutality and other forms of torture are escalating and are perpetuated by security institutions,” said a TRC statement in response to howls of protests about unpunished police killings.
TRC Human Rights Advocacy Officer Lepeli Moeketsi yesterday somewhat disagreed with Thabane noting adopting foreign ways and cultures can be both good and bad for the country, hence people should weigh the pros and cons of what they took on board.
He added that if nations did not copy from others, they ran the risk of locking themselves in a time warp while wallowing in abject poverty and ignorance.
Lepeli added that it is also true that foreign countries that offer financial assistance to developing countries like Lesotho come with conditions which included democracy and good governance.
There was nothing inherently wrong with adopting new things that were beneficial to the country, he counselled though.
Subjecting suspects or the citizenry in general to inhuman treatment or punishment was not acceptable and cannot be justified as there is no law – local and international – that justifies this, he said, adding that a person has rationality and free will, therefore physical punishment cannot change his ways.
He added that a person has inherent dignity and cannot be humiliated or subjected to inhuman treatment or punishment, as stated in the LMPS Act.
Section 8 (1) of Police Service Act 1998 reads: “No person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment.”
Where homicide was suspected as the cause of someone’s death, the law enjoined state actors and institutions to hold an inquest into the death, Attorney General Haae Phofoloo admitted.
In a statement to Public Eye yesterday he underscored the importance inquests, saying: “It is very much in the public interest that deaths be investigated where the circumstances thereto raise suspicions or it is not clear how the death occurred. This is important because it is a way of safeguarding the legal rights of the deceased’s family and other interested persons.
“Our law stipulates clearly that the magistrate must hold an inquest if there is reasonable cause to suspect that the death was due to anything other than natural causes,” Phofoolo said.
Development for Peace Education Development (DPE) peace education researcher Thaabe Mmoso added the DPE detests all types of inhumane treatment regardless of the seriousness of crime the suspect may have allegedly committed.
“People who commit crimes should be arrested and brought before courts of law where their fate will be determined.
“Physical punishment is not acceptable nor can it be justified as a way of life in any country or culture as people are governed by laws that they should abide by. The law strictly orders good governance and protection of people,” he said.
“Living peacefully with people is not losing one’s roots or way of doing things, especially because Lesotho is known to be a peaceful country.”
Mmoso said it was appropriate that international donors were demanding good governance as this would encourage the country to restore the old ways it had forsaken, such as treating each other humanely and with dignity.