The shooting of a newspaper editor in Lesotho is the latest in a series of attacks on government critics in the mountainous country surrounded by South Africa, a church official said.
Lloyd Mutungamiri, editor of the Lesotho Times, was critically injured in the July 9 attack by unknown gunmen outside his home in the capital, Maseru.
“The situation in the country is terrible and deteriorating,” said Booi Mohapi, who heads the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of the Lesotho bishops’ conference.
Lesotho, with its population of 2 million people, “moves from one political crisis to another, compromising the safety of its people,” he said in a July 11 telephone interview from Maseru.
“We need urgent intervention from the Southern African Development Community,” a regional trade bloc of 15 countries, Mohapi said, noting that the local church has documented “alarming human rights abuses.”
The justice and peace commission has called on the bloc to set up an office in Maseru to monitor rights abuses, he said, noting also that the situation could improve with a constant international presence.
Sixteen soldiers charged with mutiny are tortured and held in “appalling conditions” in Maseru’s maximum security prison, Mohapi said. Their lawyers face death threats and their wives and children live in fear, he added.
The justice and peace commission carried out extensive interviews with the families of the imprisoned soldiers and has documented its findings of abuses, he said.
Commission members heard stories of soldiers “abducted in front of their families, including old parents and young children,” he said.
The former head of the Lesotho army, Maaparankoe Mahao, was shot dead in June 2015 during an operation to arrest suspected coup plotters, according to the country’s defence ministry.
Mahao, an ally of Lesotho’s former prime minister, was a bitter rival of the current army chief.
In an investigation into Lesotho’s security crisis, the Southern African Development Community found no evidence of a mutiny plot, Mohapi said.
All Lesotho’s opposition leaders live in South Africa after alleging assassination attempts by defence force members. In July 2015, Archbishop Gerard Tlali Lerotholi of Maseru reported that he was on a hit list.
As well as its “political quagmire,” Lesotho also experiences “almost weekly shootings and murders of ordinary citizens” in turf wars, Mohapi said.
In its efforts to support the imprisoned soldiers and their families, the church is providing counselling for family members and fundraising to assist with the soldiers’ legal fees and other needs, he said. In cases where families have been impoverished by their breadwinner’s absence, the church tries to help with material support too, he said.
With other civil society organisations, the justice and peace commission advocates for the soldiers’ release as well as for fundamental reforms to Lesotho’s justice system, Mohapi said.
Urging authorities to bring those responsible for the attack on the newspaper editor to justice, Amnesty International’s deputy director for southern Africa said it was “also an attack on the right to freedom of expression” in Lesotho.
“His shooting is particularly disturbing because it comes amid increased harassment and intimidation against the newspaper for its investigative journalism work,” Amnesty’s Muleya Mwananyanda said in a statement on July 11.