LHDA caught in the crossfire


… as police torture Polihali community members


MASERU – In yet another damning incidence of police brutality, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project has been caught in the crossfire as communities in the Polihali project area along with civil society pressure groups accuse the water authority of lackluster interventions to protect community interests and safety. Katse police officers have come under fire for brutality and human rights violations after an incident where 40 members of Seshoete community were brutally beaten up and tortured for demonstrating their dissatisfaction against life threatening construction activities which has left some property in the area damaged.

The water authority has since responded expressing regret about the whole incident promising to continue with its efforts to harmonise working relations between communities and engaged construction companies under the Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Area Chief of Ha Seshote, Liseleng, Chief Kose Sekonyela, told Public Eye that about 40 members of his community have been brutally beaten and tortured by members of the Katse police station for protesting and expressing their dissatisfaction towards the HSPY Joint Venture for the damage to property the community suffered during the company’s blasting activities.

HSPY is contracted by LHDA to do some construction jobs at its Polihali Phase II project. Sekonyela claimed that two weeks ago, contrary to their agreement with the contractor that before blasting it should inform the community to avoid unintended accidents, the contractor went ahead with blasting without any warning and, as a result, houses were damaged, animals died, while electricity supply was cut off for three to four weeks and several villagers were nearly hit by rock debris from the blasting.

He further charged that because of the blasting that also caused their electricity supply to be cut off local businesses and livelihoods were adversely impacted. Efforts to settle the matter amicably with HSPY did not result in any change in behaviour or efforts to rectify the damage done. He said after the blasting, HSPY Joint venture neither contacted the community to inquire about the damage done nor even try to compensate the villagers on the losses suffered. Instead, the contractor closed operations for the end of the month.

Sekonyela noted that when the contractor came back to resume work, the community closed the road in protest to force HSPY Joint Venture to address their grievances. Instead, the contractor came with police officers who arrested his son, tortured him and later charged him for disrupting road traffic, Sekonyela said. The following day, which was Tuesday, May 10, 2022 the community held a peaceful demonstration seeking answers but were also met with severe beating from the police and further alleged they were even taken to Katse Dam where they were dipped in water and were only rescued by soldiers who stopped the torture.

Sekonyela said the 40 community members were taken to Katse police station where they were packed into a small cell and brutally assaulted before they were transferred to Thaba-Tseka police station. He said as of now, community members are at home after they were released on bail and are nursing injuries from the torture they endured from the Katse police officers. They are waiting for their case to come before the courts.

A video that this publication has seen shows members of the community being beaten up and forced to roll on the ground by police officers in a torturous fashion. Sekonyela, who is one of the victims of police brutality, is nursing an injury. Survivor of Lesotho Dams (SOLD) and Seinoli Legal Centre (SLC) have condemned these acts of police brutality and human rights violations and the insensitivity of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project on the matter.

SLC says this highlights the insensitivity of LHDA and the government of Lesotho to the plight of communities affected by ongoing advance infrastructure works ahead of the construction of Polihali Dam. National Co-ordinator Lenka Thamae said the actions by police officers that violated human rights and inflicted bodily harm on people is not a once-off incident but the norm among police.

Thamae said because of this, they demand HSPY Joint Venture to go back to the community, apologize, take the victims for medical treatment and compensate them for the suffering and damage they experienced. He said failure to do so, SOLD will be forced to inform international partners including the American government even if that will put Lesotho at the risk of losing MCC second compact it just signed.

Efforts to get a comment from Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli, Police Public Relations Officer, were futile as his phone was not answered. The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority confirmed that the Polihali Western Access Road was blocked by the community near Ha Lekiba and Ha Salemone villages on May 10 and 11, 2022 respectively. Public Relations Officer at LHDA Masilo Phakoe said a group of community members reportedly blockaded the road using rocks, resulting in disruption of work, and restriction of movement of both the construction vehicles and construction personnel.

He said this blockade follows damages to some household property, including roof sheeting and damage to an overhead electric cable at Ha Lekiba by flying rocks following blasting on the PWARWest Road on 25 April 2022. He said following consultations between the representatives of the contractor, consultants and the LEC technicians, the road was re-opened for work to resume at 10h30am on 11 May 2022.

“The community’s complaint was that they had been without electricity supply since the damage to the overhead electric cable. The contractor took responsibility for the damage and immediately liaised with the Lesotho Electricity Company to repair the overhead electric cable and restore the electricity supply while the Contractor attends to the damage to household property. “The LEC technicians restored the power line and electricity was back by the end of the day on the 11 May 2022 for the two concerned villages, namely; Lekiba Village and Ha Salemone Village,” Phakoe noted.

He said the blockade reportedly resumed on May 12, 2022 in protest against the arrest of one community member on the previous day by the Bokong Police. He, however, said the damage to household property and the cut off of the electricity supply, and subsequent developments are deeply regretted. LHDA commits to continue fostering good working relations with all relevant stakeholders, including the service providers, the law enforcement agencies, and the communities, to resolve issues quickly and peacefully.

“The LHDA has the communities’ interest at heart and always strives to have the communities’ concerns resolved amicably. The LHDA fully understands and appreciates the importance of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to the people of Lesotho and, in particular, to the communities that are affected by the implementation of the Project,” he said.

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