“I was tied to a bench with my face looking upwards and they suffocated me with the black plastic bag with a huge police officer on my stomach. They [Swazi police] asked me where the guns were and who was going to come to Swaziland to overthrow the king. They did that over and over again till I collapsed. They told me that they will kill me for causing trouble in the country and organizing the April 12 uprising,” Swazi student leader Maxwell Dlamini tells Africa Contact in a statement about his arrest, remand and court case. Maxwell was arrested, tortured and charged with possession of explosives in connection with the Arab Spring-inspired “April 12 uprising” in Swaziland in 2011. There has been a campaign for his full and unconditional release ever since, organised by the British National Union of Students, British NGO ACTSA and Danish NGO Africa Contact, who together with the Swazi democratic movement have insisted that Maxwell was innocent. Having been released on the largest bail in Swazi history four weeks ago, Maxwell can now finally tell the story of his horrendous ordeal in his own words.
”My first arrest was on the 10th of April 2011,” Maxwell tells Africa Contact. “I was returning from South Africa, driving a car when just near the border I met a roadblock. They were conducting a routine search. Then all of a sudden a police officer hit me on the face and I fell down. They drove me to Mbabane regional headquarters where I was shoved into a conference centre full of police officers. They insulted me, undressed me, humiliated and degraded me.”
“Then the head of the team, assistant commissioner Zephaniah Mgabhi, told me to give him the bombs and guns that I was carrying from South Africa. I told them that I was carrying no such thing. I was assaulted and suffocated with a black plastic back till I was very week and I couldn’t breath. After two hours they took me to a police van and drove me to an isolated police station. I was thrown into a cell with no lights or toilet. They gave me neither food nor water.”
“On the 12 of April, I was delivered to another team of Special Forces who took me to my house to search for bombs, explosives and guns. They ransacked the house but did not find anything. The regional commander strictly warned me against joining any protest in the future and told me to resign from SNUS [Swaziland National Union of Students, of which Maxwell is President]. Then I was released and dumped in a far away forest.”
“Thursday the 14th of April 2011, I decided to join the struggling masses of our people who were confronting [absolute monarch king] Mswati’s regime in Manzini. Here twenty police officers arrested me. They drove straight to Matsapha police station. I was taken into an interrogation room. One police officer by the name of Clement Sihlongonyane told me that he would deal with me once and for all. They tied me to a bench facing upward and again they suffocated me with a plastic bag. I was told that I will not finish my degree at the university and that they will kill me or send me to jail.”
“Later, they brought Musa [Ngubeni, Maxwell’s friend, fellow student leader and co-accused] and we were told that we have to sign the confession statement that we were carrying explosives but we refused. The following day they took us to the magistrates court where we were formally charged with allegedly being in possession of explosives.”
The Arab Spring spreads southwards
Maxwell is just one of many Swazi democracy campaigners who have been beaten up, tortured, framed, and detained for months on end, as the Swazi regime has become increasingly desperate in its attempt to cling on to power.
Mario Masuku, the President of PUDEMO, Swaziland’s largest illegal opposition party, was detained for almost a year on charges of treason, before the charges against him were dropped in a matter of hours once the trial had begun. Former Swazi student leader Pius Vilakati has spoken of his torture at the hands of Swazi police, amongst other things how they “covered my face with a plastic bag many times, only giving me a few seconds to breathe between intervals. He has since fled to South Africa in fear of his life. And student and PUDEMO member Sipho Jele was arrested and interrogated for having worn a PUDEMO T-shirt on 1. May 2010. He was found dead in his cell three days later under suspicious circumstances.
But as the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East has shown, increasingly brutal methods by dictatorships only tend to increase the determination of a population that has shed its fear of its brutal methods.
As with the other Arab Spring uprisings, the uprising in Swaziland is driven by a combination of an increasingly vocal opposition to a brutal dictatorship, large youth unemployment and an economic downturn. In Swaziland, the economic mismanagement of King Mswati III’s regime has caused the economy to virtually implode. The state has responded by laying off staff and cancelling pensions, temporarily closing the university and cutting back on important social services, in a country with one of the highest HIV per capita rates in the world.
“King Mswati must lead the process of a genuine dialogue that will lead to the drafting of peoples driven constitution and free and fair elections under a multi party democracy,” Maxwell therefore insists. “He must be aware that the patience of the youth is running out fast. If he won’t lead the process of a general transformation, he may suffer the same fate as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali.”
A peaceful democratic transition?
But regardless of the regime’s brutal treatment of him, Maxwell still insists that a peaceful and inclusive transition to democracy in Swaziland is the only way forward. “I strongly believe in a peaceful transformation of our country into a democratic state. I frown upon all forms of terrorism, extremism and violence as a tool of expressing ones views and opinions. Our struggle is not of hate and vengeance but it’s a struggle for peace and stability. I strongly believe in genuine dialogue, constructive engagement and peaceful negotiations as a form of solving conflicts and problems.”
As for his own situation, Maxwell hopes that his court case will soon be over and his innocence proven, but he is willing to accept the hardships that come with fighting for democracy and human rights in a brutal dictatorship. “I will continue with the noble and just cause of fighting for democracy, advocating for the respect of human rights, and accessible and affordable relevant education for all,” he says. “I will not let my arrest, detention, torture and intimidation deter me from the noble and just cause of national liberation, self determination and progress for our country.”
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