MASERU – A parliamentary portfolio committee probing last December’s violent clashes between police and Kao villagers has accused local rights group Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) of stoking the violence, police chief Holomo Molibeli has revealed.
But TRC officials this week denied the accusation charging it was a malicious government attempt to dissuade it from organising citizens and encouraging them to take an active role in governance issues.
Molibeli said the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Public Safety after a factfinding tour of two villages in Botha-Bothe had told him the TRC had masterminded the February 2018 protests which resulted in the death of Terene Pitae.
On December 27, last year, approximately 70 heavily armed, uniformed police descended on the Botha-Bothe village and attacked residents.
Police allegedly rounded up approximately 45 men including Moloi and took them to a river that runs through the village, where they made them lie down on their stomachs, kicked them and ordered them to roll on stones.
The committee is yet to present its findings on allegations of torture and police brutality to Parliament.
“There is information to the effect that TRC incited protests leading to chaos at Kao,” Molibeli told Public Eye.
“We were briefed by the parliament’s committee. Also, some 150 villagers wrote a letter saying they wanted TRC out of their villagers. They said it is inciting violence,” he added.
But TRC on Tuesday this week said: “We are not moved by such statements as they are uttered with malicious intent to discourage TRC from capacitating communities on their human rights.”
Lepeli Moeketsi, TRC’s human rights officer, told Public Eye that Molibeli was not the first person to suggest that the organisation incited violent protests at Kao.
“The mine (Storm Mountain Diamonds operating the Kao Mine) previously said that, and the minister of mines. So we are really not moved by such misguided labelling. We shall continue with our work and indeed we are noting remarkable impact. Basotho are now enlightened when it comes to issues of human rights and good governance,” Moeketsi said.
“This does not sit well with leaders because they want people who are ignorant because they are easily ruled,” he added.
“The fact that parliamentary portfolio committee” was investigating the “Kao issue” cannot not stop “us from suggesting further what must be done”.
“We specifically called for a commission of inquiry into these alleged tortures and killings in line with treaties which Lesotho is a state party to,” he said and insisted that investigations cannot be done solely by the portfolio committee.
Moeketsi hinted Holomo was twiddling his fingers while his officer brutalised the public with impunity, adding that overcoming police brutality can be mounted on greater community participation in governance matters.
“TRC observation is that COMPOL has lost control of the LMPS and needs to be assisted. TRC is willing to assist, we are even appealing to the international community to assist in remedying the situation.
“This problem of police brutality overwhelms him. He is quoted in several newspapers condemning this police behaviour but there is no change. This gives TRC a perception that he is overwhelmed and must open doors to be assisted by other stakeholders such as civil society organisations,” he added.
Molibeli on Wednesday denied this.
“My doors are wide open, open so much that TRC at one point set an appointment with me but they never showed up for the appointment. It is not true that I am overwhelmed. I am firmly in control and have a plan of how we are going to end brutality,” he said.
The TRC and the police have a particularly tense relationship with both sides continually accusing each other of unprofessional conduct, thus thwarting the promotion of human rights in the country.
The TRC recently singled out police brutality as one of the overarching problems resulting in an alarming number of extrajudicial killings.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that over 30 people have been killed by police officers since 2017.
“Those reports are exaggerated,” Molibeli said.
He further explained that he was shown a list of people who had allegedly died at the hands of police officers by the Sadc Preventative Mission (SAPMIL) that was deployed in the country for a year until November last year.
“That list of people purportedly killed by police included the names of, for example ‘Me Lipolelo Thabane and Thelingoane ‘Mota; these people did not die in the hands of police. That list was exaggerated by people who wanted to score political points,” he said.
This latest spat between Holomo and TRC was sparked by a joint statement released by Amnesty International, the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and TRC last Friday.
The three rights groups called on “the Lesotho authorities to ensure that police officers reasonably suspected of criminal responsibility are held accountable in fair trials, without recourse to the death penalty”.
They further urged authorities to ensure “victims of torture and other ill-treatment are provided with effective remedies, including adequate compensation and rehabilitation”.
The statement read: “Amnesty International, SAHRDN and TRC call on the Lesotho authorities to expedite the passing of specific legislation to criminalise torture and other ill-treatment, and to establish effective, independent oversight bodies with powers to review and investigate complaints of torture and other ill-treatment during detention and to monitor conditions in all prisons and detention facilities, in line with Lesotho’s international human rights law obligations.”
The groups also referred to police violence in Kao that was on full display during mass demonstrations by Kao villagers in February last year demanding that Storm Mountain Diamonds Mine provide infrastructure, including roads and electricity to the mining affected community.
The SMD mine is located in Kao and there has been a longstanding dispute between the affected community and the mine since its establishment.
The police reacted to the demonstrations with force, shooting to death a villager, Terene Pitae.
Moloi was a human rights defender who worked as a paralegal for the TRC, and reportedly witnessed the shooting and killing of Pitae.
In their statement last week, the organisations said they have longstanding concerns regarding “impunity in Lesotho”.
They called for an independent investigation “outside the police hierarchy given the poor quality of earlier investigations”.
In October last year, SMD chairperson, Milford Mundel blasted TRC.
“It is disheartening to see important institutions and lobby groups such as the TRC peddle cheap sensationalism. These organisations have a duty to act in good faith and not to mislead the public,” Mundel said.
His remarks followed a statement issued by TRC in which it accused the mine of “gross human rights violations”. It had also accused the mine of allegedly capturing police to do its bidding.
TRC said the mine bosses were complicit in the death of Pitae.