Commission to probe prisoners’ torture



MASERU – A commission of inquiry has been established to investigate alleged excessive use of force against prisoners at the Maseru Central Correctional Institution (MCCI). This follows the escape of inmates on December 21 and subsequent events, including reports of torture that resulted in serious injuries on December 22. The commission began its work this week, as announced by Law and Justice Minister, Richard Ramoeletsi in Parliament on Tuesday this week.

The commission’s members, who took their oaths of office at the High Court on Monday, include High Court Justice Realeboha Mathaba as chairperson, alongside lawyer and former diplomat Advocate Kelebone Maope and Mojalefa Thulo, a retired commissioner of the Lesotho Correctional Services (LCS). Currently, the commission is conducting a preliminary review of the information available (desk study).

After completing the desk study, the commission will hear testimony from all relevant stakeholders and the victims. Ramoeletsi said the dates for these hearings would be announced once the initial review phase is complete. The commission of inquiry will also examine the conduct of correctional staff. This inquiry was established in response to a recommendation by the Ombudsman, Advocate Tlotliso Polaki, to thoroughly investigate the events of December 22, when allegations of torture emerged.

Established under Section 3(1) of the Public Inquiries Act of 1994, the commission is tasked with a two-month tenure, to conduct its investigations and subsequently publish a report with recommendations. Ramoeletsi emphasised the government’s transparency in this matter, stating that the commission’s findings and recommendations will be made public and implemented. “On behalf of the government, I am committed to ensuring that this independent commission of inquiry conducts a thorough investigation to uncover the full details of what transpired, and we will publicise its recommendations,” said the minister.

The issue of inmates’ torture came to light last December when it was revealed that nine soldiers awaiting trial had been tortured, and their family members and legal representatives were denied visitation rights. A court application was filed demanding that the Lesotho Correctional Services (LCS) management allow access to the detainees and ensure they receive medical attention. The application also requested that the tortured detainees be presented in court to verify their claims.

High Court Judge ’Mabatšoeneng Hlaele granted the order, and the injured inmates were brought before the court on Christmas Eve, providing evidence of the abuse and resulting injuries. Justice Hlaele subsequently ruled that corporal punishment is still provided for in the statutes, and she was unable to decriminalise it as she was not sitting in a Constitutional Court.

The Ombudsman also initiated an independent investigation into the incidents in question. Her findings were alarming, as the situation was even more severe than initially reported by the media. According to Advocate Tlotliso Polaki, over 300 inmates were severely tortured and were in dire need of medical attention, which they did not receive. “Not less than 300 inmates were afflicted and had been beaten up,” Advocate Polaki reported.

She discovered that the inmates were beaten, slapped, and aggressively searched in a manner that seemed designed to provoke altercations. The gravity of the abuse led to the death of one inmate, Bokang Tsoako, and the severe injury of another, Tlotliso Bereng, among other serious injuries to many. Polaki identified 40 officers directly linked to the acts of torture and recommended that they be further investigated and face criminal charges.

Tsoako was one of the six inmates who had escaped from MCCI on December 21, 2023, but was later re-arrested, while Bereng was an awaiting trial inmate who had only been detained for about three weeks. Polaki’s investigation revealed a well-orchestrated plan to torture and mistreat inmates, particularly those from the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) awaiting trial. She noted that senior officers were present during the beatings but failed to intervene, indicating a culture of neglect and lack of accountability.

Her report pointed to a combination of systematic and human factors contributing to the torture of inmates. Among the human factors, she cited abuse of power, unresponsiveness, and dereliction of duty by some officers present during the violations. Furthermore, Polaki said staff shortage at MCCI has led to reliance on recruits to conduct searches during the festive season.

Systematic issues, according to her findings, have led to compromised correctional services, with facilities being unsafe for inmates as the institution continues to rely on outdated prison rules for its daily operations. Management decisions, often based on discretion and personal whims, were also criticised for compromising professionalism within the institution.

These factors, along with others, have negatively impacted inmates, who are the primary consumers of correctional services. Polaki also highlighted the prolonged poor working environment and conditions for correctional officers, which she believed led to rogue behaviour, including collusion between officers and inmates in illegal activities and sabotage against management.

Additionally, an ineffective ICT infrastructure has compromised 24/7 surveillance and security systems. Inadequate controls to ensure the safety and rights of inmates were also noted, with a lack of supervision over key processes such as cell openings, closures, searches, and seizures by MCCI supervisors. 

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