Rights groups have condemned Eswatini’s arrest of two lawmakers this week and the use of force against pro-democracy protesters. The southern African kingdom, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, has been rocked by protests since June.
Protests re-ignited Thursday in Eswatini, previously known as Swaziland, as two pro-democracy members of parliament appeared in court.
Mthandeni Dube and Mduduzi Mabuza were arrested earlier this week on charges of terrorism for inciting unrest and violating COVID-19 regulations.
The unrest began over a month ago with protests calling for political reform.
Twenty-five-year-old Vuysiwa Maseko is a member of the Swaziland National Union of Students, which is among the central groups leading the demonstrations.
He says the arrests exemplify the lack of freedom in the country.
“Indeed, it’s angering and raging because these are the people’s representatives in parliament,” said Maseko. “They are the voices of the voiceless and arresting them means government is shutting 1.1 million voices – the population of Swaziland.”
Weeks of demonstrations have cost the landlocked country’s economy at least $200 million.
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They’ve also cost lives. Local police have confirmed over 30 people have been killed and many more arrested.
International organizations and governments have condemned the response by authorities, calling the use of force excessive.
Amnesty International spokesperson Robert Shivambu says the lawmakers should be released immediately.
“They have committed no crime and have been targeted by the government solely for for their political views,” said Shivambu. “We believe that both MPs are victims of political witch hunt, which is designed to silence any critical voice that is demanding political reforms and human rights.”
Government spokesperson Sabelo Dlamani declined to comment in response to the condemnation.
Instead, he deferred to Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini’s parliamentary address on Wednesday, in which he vehemently denied political motivation for the lawmakers’ arrest.
But the prime minister also said the rule of law would be upheld and applied to anyone who incited violence under the guise of free expression.
Until the government meets with the public for peaceful negotiations, Amnesty International spokesperson Robert Shivambu says more episodes of violence are feared.
“The government thinks that the only way to respond to these protests is crackdown that we have seen, they have deployed the police and the army to crack down on dissent. So we are we are concerned that things could escalate,” said Shivambu.
The international support is welcome by student protesters like Maseko.
But members of the United Eswatini Diaspora say they want to see more than just talk from the international community.
Qhawekazi Khumalo says they want countries, from neighboring South Africa to other global powerhouses, to halt business with the government.
“We’re calling for sanctions of all Swaziland products, particularly those that Emaswati are business shareholder in, and those are some of the things that the world has authority, you know to do,” Khumalo said.
The jailed members of parliament remain behind bars after a judge deferred a decision to grant them bail at a Thursday hearing. A new date for a ruling has yet to be announced.