Thulani Maseko was a well-respected human rights lawyer who dedicated his life to advocating for human rights, rule of law, and democracy in Eswatini. On January 21, 2023, three days before International Day of the Endangered Lawyer, he was shot and killed in his home. While the circumstances of his death are still under investigation, public reports indicate that he was likely targeted in retaliation for his human rights work and political activism.
Lawyers play a vital role in protecting not only human rights, but also the rule of law and democracy. The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers particularly affirms that lawyers have “the right to take part in the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights” and that they must be allowed to carry out their work “without intimidation, hinderance, harassment or improper interference”. At the time of his death, Maseko was the Chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a coalition of civil society organizations and political parties advocating for democratic reforms in Eswatini. Since 2021, the Kingdom of Eswatini has experienced nationwide pro-democracy protests. The government of Eswatini has been widely criticized for responding to these protests with excessive use of force, extra judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and abductions of protesters and the perceived leaders. Amongst those arrested were two Members of Parliament, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who have remained in custody since July 2021. Maseko was one of their lawyers at the time of their arrest and at the beginning of their trial. State security forces have also been implicated in violent attacks on opposition leaders and protesters. Many observers and peers of Mr. Maseko believe that his murder was part of this crackdown on those calling for democratic reform in Eswatini. It would be an escalation of a pattern of threats and intimidation against him for his work.
Thulani Maseko was a firm believer in the independence of the legal profession and judiciary as one of the bedrocks for the protection of human rights, and often litigated and advocated for the same. He was repeatedly harassed and targeted for this work. In 2014, he was arrested, detained, and prosecuted for publishing an article that criticized the judiciary’s handling of a criminal case where the conduct of the court raised serious questions about judicial independence in Eswatini. He was convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to two years in prison. The ABA Center for Human Rights, through its Justice Defenders Program, together with the International Commission of Jurists and the law firm Hogan and Lovells US LLPs, petitioned the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which affirmed that Maseko’s 2014 arrest and detention was arbitrary and a violation of his rights to freedom of expression, liberty and a fair trial. In 2016, the ABA Center for Human Rights again supported Maseko, who was facing a civil defamation suit in relation to another article that raised issues of judicial independence. The case was later withdrawn.
Although Maseko faced intimidation and threats throughout his career, he never wavered in his commitment to the rule of law, democracy, and the realization of human rights in Eswatini and across the Southern Africa region. In recent years, Thulani Maseko served as a trial monitor, served on fact-finding missions, and tirelessly lent his expertise and insight to the ABA’s global human rights and rule of law programming across the region. In particular, having experienced personally the misuse of the criminal justice system to silence critical speech, he lent his voice to speak up on behalf of others, especially fellow members of the legal profession, wrongfully prosecuted for their advocacy.
Mr. Maseko was an advocate whose loss is felt by many. Eswatini has lost one if its most faithful advocates, who continued to put his hope for change in the courts and democratic process despite the retaliation he experienced. The legal community has lost a lawyer who represented the ideals that brought many of us to this profession. For those of us at the ABA’s Center for Human Rights and Rule of Law Initiative who had the privilege of working with him on human rights cases and rule of law programming, we are shocked and grief-bound at the callousness with which his life was taken. As we mourn, we note the many calls for justice that have followed in the wake of this attack. Around the world, individuals, organizations, governments, and the broader global community are demanding that Eswatini authorities adhere to their obligations to conduct an independent and transparent investigation into this attack and hold those responsible accountable. Thulani Maseko sought justice in life. We hope he will be granted it in death.