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Reign of terror grips Lesotho

05 July 2015 - 02:05 By STEPHAN HOFSTATTER in Lesotho and THANDUXOLO JIKA

Lesotho is lurching towards a military dictatorship as the army unleashes a reign of terror on its citizens, acting as a law unto itself and arresting, torturing and killing opponents. This is according to civil society leaders, the opposition, security sources and relatives of soldiers detained and tortured on suspicion of plotting a mutiny.A hardline faction loyal to the fragile new Lesotho coalition government led by Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili appears to have gained control of the military.Locals interviewed said they had lost faith in South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa's efforts to stem the tide of terror.They accused him of strengthening the hardliners' hands by appearing to endorse the return of renegade coup plotter Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli as chief of the Lesotho Defence Force.story_article_left1They are particularly unhappy about Ramaphosa's actions at a handover ceremony in Maseru at the end of March when, critics claimed, he publicly welcomed Kamoli.The ceremony was to mark the official end of the Southern African Development Community mission in Lesotho. Ramaphosa had been assigned by SADC to facilitate talks between the government and opposition parties in the country.Abductions, disappearances and assassinations of political foes and dissident soldiers at the hands of these hardliners are becoming commonplace.Two journalists, dozens of soldiers, a lawyer representing detainees and several opposition leaders, including former prime minister Tom Thabane, have fled to South Africa in fear of their lives.Security sources said the terror campaign was being waged by a squad of crack troops led by Lesotho's special forces commander, Brigadier Ramanka Mokaloba.Most recently, Mokaloba's terror squad assassinated Lesotho's former defence force chief, Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahao, near his farm 30km outside the capital, Maseru, according to his relatives, two of whom said they saw the attack.block_quotes_start Detainees are subjected to continuous torture in subzero temperatures. Many disappear for several days block_quotes_endA photograph of Mahao's corpse appears to show he was struck by bullets in eight places on his arm, chest and head. It contradicts the official line that Mahao had only been shot in the arm and had bled to death.Mosisili told a group of SADC ministers headed by South African Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula last week that Mahao had pulled out his private pistol, cocked it and pointed it at the army officers and that was why he was shot.Mosisili also told the ministers that Mahao was "taken to the military hospital and was able to walk within the hospital precinct unaided, but later died due to overbleeding".On Friday, a SADC meeting held in Pretoria to discuss the Lesotho crisis pledged to set up an independent inquiry into Mahao's death and send an independent pathologist to establish the cause of death.SADC has set aside more than R4-million for the inquiry.Mahao's relatives hold out little hope that this will lead to justice."I hold SADC and Ramaphosa responsible personally for my husband's death," his widow, Mamphanya Mahao, said this week. "He insisted that my husband leave Lesotho and promised to bring the criminals to book, but did nothing."full_story_image_hleft1Ramaphosa's spokesman, Ronnie Mamoepa, yesterday disputed that the deputy president had received a hostile reception in Lesotho."I was there. The important point is that the deputy president went to convey his condolences," he said.He also disputed that there was widespread unhappiness about his mediation efforts. Ramaphosa had met a cross-section of Lesotho society that had been "supportive of his efforts", Mamoepa said."His mission helped Lesotho reopen parliament, and hold elections, which were declared free, fair and credible. After that we lowered the flag of SADC. What happened after that is the subject of a commission of inquiry."But the snap elections in February brokered by Ramaphosa have done nothing to improve security.According to security sources, Mokaloba's terror squad consists of about 40 special forces commandos wearing black balaclavas who prowl the streets and villages of Lesotho in unmarked cars without licence plates and with tinted windows.Witnesses, detainees, their relatives and lawyers - whose accounts are supported by photographic evidence - have described how the commandos pounce on their victims in broad daylight, cover their heads with hoods and drive them to Sedibeng army base.Sedibeng, deep in the mountains 60km from Maseru, is notorious for military atrocities, including extrajudicial killings and torture. There the detainees are subjected to continuous torture in subzero temperatures. Many disappear for several days before surfacing at a military intelligence detention centre in Maseru.During their torture detainees were promised freedom if they implicated Mahao and other officers in a mutiny plot against Kamoli, said a soldier.The detainees are also kicked repeatedly in the groin. Their wives complained their spouses were no longer "their husbands in the proper sense any more", said Mahao's widow.full_story_image_hleft2Mole Kumalo, a former soldier and now a lawyer acting for the detainees, fled to South Africa after a group of soldiers tried to kill him. He described the torture."They will take off their clothes and put them in water. Then they fasten them to a pole and use plastic or a tube to suffocate them. They told me it would last 30 minutes and would be repeated if they said they didn't know anything about the mutiny meetings."My clients can identify the men who abducted and tortured them."Lesotho Defence Minister Tseliso Mokhosi defended the army, saying that the wearing of balaclavas was standard practice."There is nothing illegal about that or anything untoward," he said.The defence force top brass claims to have uncovered a mutiny plot orchestrated by Mahao. Detainees' charge sheets allege that evidence of the plot includes text and WhatsApp messages of clandestine meetings to discuss assassinating the military high command."The deceased [Mahao] was part of that mutiny plot - that is why they were going to arrest him. His cellphones have messages which prove that he was part of the mutiny plot," said Mokhosi.He said the opposition "is the one that just wants chaos in the country. I mean, the former leader Thabane, within a period of two years, had appointed four police commissioners. He did that because he wanted a person that would arrest his political foes, so when a commissioner refused to do that, he would fire the commissioner."He said it was "an absolute lie that [Kamoli] is abusing his power and threatening people. It is an absolute lie that he is in charge of an army that is assassinating people."full_story_image_hleft3The SADC investigation would "prove who is guilty".Since May, when Kamoli was reinstated, more than 50 soldiers have been charged with mutiny.Mahao was supposed to have been the 53rd and final arrest before the military leadership finalised its case against the alleged mutineers.SADC has decided that the military should put on hold the court martial process to allow the commission to conduct an independent inquiry.There should also be an investigation into the allegations of kidnapping of former army members and alleged killings of the opposition. The commission will have to complete its inquiry within 60 days.SADC further questioned Mosisili's decision to appoint Kamoli in the face of a recommendation by Ramaphosa that he and the late Mahao leave the army. The body also wants an investigation into claims by opposition parties and civil society that his reappointment had led to divisions within the army and political instability.But Mokhosi, the defence minister, threw his weight behind the army chief: "Kamoli is the best person for the job right now and for the country. He shouldn't be removed. The root cause of the divisions in the army come from the previous prime minister and how he had also brought Mahao into the army defying a court martial."sub_head_start Timeline sub_head_endMay 1998: The Lesotho Congress for Democracy wins 79/80 seats in the May 1998 elections. Opposition parties complained the election was rigged, giving rise to a South African Development Community investigation, led by then high court judge Pius Langa. His report found "serious" problems, but ultimately ruled: "We are unable to state that the invalidity of the elections has been conclusively established."Delays in the release of results and rumours they were being falsified in favour of the LCD preceded the subsequent mutiny in the Lesotho Defence Force.September 22 1998: 2000 SANDF soldiers are deployed into Lesotho under the auspices of SADC. The incursion was officially titled "Operation Boleas" and was carried out at the invitation of Lesotho's then prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili - who had said the country was on the verge of a coup. Just after nightfall, about 200 troops from Botswana arrived in the capital, Maseru, to supplement the SANDF.September 1998: There is widespread looting, damage and conflict in Maseru, and much confusion in the conduct of SANDF soldiers, 11 of whom died.December 9 1998: Lesotho swears in an Interim Political Authority (IPA) following its disputed elections. The IPA consisted of 24 members, two nominees from each of the parties who contested the May 1998 elections. It had the authority to review the electoral code of conduct, the Independent Electoral Commission and the Lesotho electoral system.story_article_right2May 2002: New elections are held under the auspices of the IPA. The LCD wins 54% of the vote. The LCD holds 79/80 constituency seats.October 2006: Tom Thabane leaves the ruling LCD and, along with 17 other members of parliament, forms the All Basotho Convention (ABC).November 2006: Parliament is dissolved, on the advice of the prime minister and king (Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy).February 17 2007: National elections are held. The LCD wins 61/80 constituency seats; the ABC wins 17. Thabane calls the election "free but not fair".May 26 2012: General elections are held. Prior to this, the LCD splits. Incumbent prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili forms the Democratic Congress (DC), which wins a majority of 39.5%. The ABC forms a coalition government, together with the LCD and Basotho National Party, giving it power. Mosisili resigns to become leader of the opposition.August 2014: Lesotho army commander Lieutenant-General Kennedy Tlali Kamoli is replaced by Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahao, causing a deep divide.The National Assembly is suspended and Kamoli stages an attempted coup. Prime minister Thabane flees to South Africa. The coup fails.October 2014: Under the auspices of SADC, South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa leads a mediation attempt. It results in the Maseru Facilitation Declaration and early elections, to be held on February 28.The declaration also sees key leaders, including Kamoli, leave the country to allow the situation to cool down. They return on February 28.February 28 2015: New elections are held. No party wins a majority, but Mosisili's DC form a coalition government with the LCD.June 2015: Army commander Maaparankoe Mahao is shot and killed by members of his own force.Police commissioner Khothatso Tsooana is forced to flee the country. This sparks further unrest and violence.July 2015: SADC is called to meet, at the behest of Ramaphosa, to discuss the deteriorating situation in Lesotho. - additional reporting by Gareth van Onseleninvestigations@sundaytimes.co.za, jikat@sundaytimes.co.za..

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