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NEW YORK (Jan. 24, 2023) — The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) mourns the death of renowned Swazi human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and calls for a credible, independent investigation into his assassination on Jan. 21, 2023.

According to eyewitnesses, Maseko’s assassin fired gunshots through an open window at his home in Luhleko, 30 miles southwest of the capital Mbabane, as Maseko watched television with his wife and two young children.

“For more than twenty years, my friend Thulani was a leading attorney championing human rights. He embodied the peaceful struggle for democratic reform in Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy,” said HRF Chief Executive Thor Halvorssen.  “Thulani’s murder is a senseless and cowardly act of terrorism occurring just hours after the dictator-king publicly justified the killing of his opponents.”

The Swazi regime of King Mswati III was quick to issue a statement condemning Maseko’s murder, blaming it on “unknown criminals” and pledging an investigation. In an interview, regime spokesperson Alpheous Nxumalo denied that Maseko was in the government’s crosshairs. However, the killing happened the same day Eswatini’s dictator, King Mswati III, gave a palace speech to his armed warriors, including units from the police, army, and correctional services, where the king threatened deadly violence against those who oppose his absolute rule. 

Eswatini is undergoing a tense and bloody crisis between King Mswati and the country’s pro-democracy movement. In May 2021, a law student died while in police custody, sparking waves of protests. While some protests have been peaceful, others have turned violent with looting and burning businesses belonging to the king. In response, the monarchy banned gatherings, blocked the Internet, and unleashed a brutal crackdown, killing more than 80 people and injuring hundreds. Much of the discontent is tied to the kleptocratic nature of the monarchy. 

Calls for productive dialogue have faltered due to King Mswati’s reluctance and violent retaliations — including abductions and arson. The attacks involve parallel waves of violence against regime officials and security forces, as well as pro-democracy activists

Maseko unwaveringly rejected all violence and led the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a coalition of civil society and political groups advocating for dialogue and mediation. He also defended two Members of Parliament jailed on vague and trumped-up terrorism charges.

“HRF strongly condemns the heinous killing of Thulani Maseko and expresses our deepest condolences to his wife, Tanele, and his two sons. Thulani was a staunch advocate of peaceful democratic reform and defended the basic rights of ordinary Swazis facing injustice,” said HRF Senior Policy Officer Mohamed Keita. “He was a hero and incarnated the ideals of integrity, humility, and courage.” 

Maseko first gained prominence in June 2009 when he was arrested and charged with “sedition” for remarks at a public rally criticizing the lack of democracy. After Maseko was released on bail, he launched a legal petition challenging Eswatini’s Sedition Act. 

In March 2014, Maseko was imprisoned for criticizing the kingdom’s now-disgraced chief justice. The arrest came weeks after HRF asked Maseko to speak at the 2014 Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF). In response, HRF joined the international campaign for his release and invited his wife, Tanele, to read a letter he penned from prison at OFF. Maseko successfully appealed his conviction after a sham trial. He was released after 15 months in jail, where he was held for part of his detention in medieval-style leg irons, a torture punishment that continues to be used by the dictatorship. 

In 2016, Maseko was finally able to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum. That same year, he won a landmark legal battle when the High Court ruled that key provisions of two repressive laws — the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act 3 — were unconstitutional. And in 2018, he filed a pending lawsuit challenging the monarch’s 2018 decision to rename the country “Eswatini.” 

South Africa’s democratic transition under Nelson Mandela greatly influenced Maseko. It shaped the vision and tenets of his activism: the resolute beliefs that Swazi people cannot continue to live at the mercy of an absolute monarch, that Swazis should have the right to form a government of their choosing, and that the transition to democracy must be achieved through peaceful dialogue.