The past week has been traumatic for past and present dictators in the world. The jailing of 88 year old former general Reynaldo Bignone for twenty years in prison for his role in Operation Condor, under which an international death squad was set up by six South American military dictatorships during the 1970s and 80s has been one of the most significant developments in post Nuremburg jurisprudence. While the Nuremburg in the trials, former Nazi military personnel were jailed for the crimes they committed during the war, in spite of their sterile defence that they were obeying orders, the jailing of Bignone indicates that avoiding jail because of holding power is a temporary escape. Justice will ultimately prevail.
The plan, as recounted in court, allowed death squads from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to cross into one another’s territory to kidnap, torture and kill political opponents who had fled across the border. Persecuted in their own countries, some were ultimately tracked down and tortured and killed. After their illegal arrest in all above countries, the victims were made to “disappear”, usually by being cremated, or thrown drugged but still alive from military planes into the Atlantic Ocean. (www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/27/argentina-last-military-dictator-jailed-over-role-in-operation-condor)
Luz Palmas Zaldua, lawyer for the Centre for Social and Legal Studies which represented the victims’ families pointed out that this was the first time that the existence of Operation Condor has been proved in court. “It is also the first time that former members of Condor have been sentenced for forming part of this criminal organisation.” Two things are important besides what Zaldua has said.
First, is the point that holding power is temporary. All the dictatorships including the Argentinian one attempted to protect themselves from accounting for their crimes by use of power and also making laws which would ostensible not allow them to be able to be charged for their crimes. They forgot was that what they have done can and would most probably be undone in the future by successor regimes.
Second, the case indicates that time is not a factor for all those who are still alive. Bignone and several of his colleagues who have been jailed now are over 75 years old and they are now being jailed for crimes which they committed in 1970s and 80s. Not only have they lost power, but they are answering for the crimes they committed 40 years ago. Temporary hold on power doesn’t ensure that there is indefinite impunity.
The above leads to consideration of the state of affairs in Lesotho following the Phumaphi Report. Amongst the significant findings of the Phumaphi Report Commissioned by SADC are the specific identification of crimes which need to be investigated and taken to trial. All the crimes identified were allegedly committed by high ranking government and military officials. Lately, some leading government political allies have espoused thee view that they will say to SADC that they are ready to implement the decisions taken in Gaborone, Botswana on 18/01/2016 but will drag the process and ensure that none of the people who have been fingered in the report ever face trial. It is a case of cynicism and duplicity. Having failed to convince SADC that Lesotho’s refusal to take action against its allies in the military who have tortured, murdered and committed some of these crimes is sustainable, the government seems to have decided to behave like a typical African socialist by indicating left and then turning right. This is to publicly declare that the recommendations from the Phumaphi Report will be implemented while taking measures to prevent any meaningful action to implement those. Like Bignone and his co-conspirators, they assume that the passing of time will make their victims and their families forget their agony. That is unlikely to happen.
There is no suggestion in the Argentinian case that Bignone himself tortured, drugged people and threw them into the Atlantic Ocean. He was found to have been part of the criminal gang which did so in his political capacity. This is where the cases below have a wider significance than to implicate the military personnel who committed them. It is about the Command which was part of that conspiracy and also the political leadership which participated and attempted to shield their foot soldiers from accountability after committing the crimes. This is precisely why the Bignone case must leave both the political and military leaders in Lesotho trembling. They will eventually be tried!
Paragraphs 122-127 of the Phumaphi report provides the contexts of the political scene in Lesotho. The paragraphs provide an overview of the political shield that was provided by the political leadership to the crimes allegedly committed by the military. It also provides a picture where the relations between the military and the civilian leadership is made clear. The military is not under civilian control and the political leadership is inextricably linked with the section of the army which is linked to some of those crimes. In particular Paragraph 122 specifies:
Evidence led before the Commission is that at the Security Sub-Committee meetings led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Commissioner Tsooana raised issues of LDF suspects who were being sought after by the police which Lieutenant General Kamoli shielded. Evidence led is that the Commander was not willing to release these officers and that the Deputy Prime Minister’s security was instead beefed up by deploying some of these suspects to his security detail. (My emphasis)
It is because of this inextricable linkage between the political leadership and the military that the crimes which are allegedly committed by some in the top echelons of the LDF have to be considered. It is these crimes which, like those committed by the former leadership in Argentina, will ultimately be accounted for by both the political and military leadership in Lesotho. Amongst the crimes listed by Phumaphi are the following:
a) The list of cases in which members of the LDF are alleged to be involved, where the LDF Command is said to be blocking the cause of investigations, include; Morija Police Station CIR 673/01/12 attempted murder, Mafeteng Police Station CIR 30/04/12 murder, Mohale Police Station CIR 03/04/12 attempted murder, Mokhotlong Police Station CIR 274/06/13 attempted murder, Leribe Police Station CIR 12/04/13, Thamae Police Station CIR 146/05/14 murder, Police Headquarters CIR 778/09/14 murder of a police officer, Maseru Police Station CIR 2535/02/15 murder of a security guard and attempted murder of an LDF member. (Paragraph 136 of the Phumaphi Report)
- b) The Report also writes about the fact that the LDF has become a law into itself as corroborated by warrants of arrest issued on 17/04/2014 for High Treason against ” …Brig. Mokaloba, Major Lekhoa, Major Ntoi, Captain Hashatsi, 2nd Lieutenant Nyakane, 2nd Lieutenant Hlehlisi, Corporal Mokhesuoe, and Lance Corporal Mpolokeng Moleleki, and another warrant of arrest issued on the on the 29th September 2014 for Treason against Kamoli, Captain Hashatsi, Brigadier Mokaloba, Lt. Colonel Phaila, 2nd Lt. Nyakane, 2nd Lt. Hlehlisi, 2nd Lt. Moeletsi, Major Ntoi. (Paragraph 138 of Phumaphi Report)
- c) On the killing of Mahao by LDF, the Report observes that Sechele has identified himself as the Operation Commander. He was further identified together with Hashatsi as part of the team that was in the scene when Mahao was killed allegedly resisting arrest. This is a version which the Commission specifically rejects. (Paragraphs 131-133 Phumaphi Report) The operation to kill Mahao, even though it was not labelled as such, involved many more people within the civilian administration and the military. Accountability therefore will go beyond those who pulled the trigger.
In the recent past, there has been a furore in Lesotho about the implementation or otherwise of the Phumaphi Recommendations which SADC has now endorsed and are thus a regional consensus. Some people in the ruling coalition government have even suggested that those decisions like the removal of Kamoli as Commander of LDF cannot be implemented. The issue for me is that the decisions will be implemented sooner or later.
The delay to enforce the implementation by SADC is a setback but not a critical issue. It is sometimes normal in international institutions that action is delayed. But the case of Bignone illustrates that accountability for all the crimes which are presently held hostage by the political quagmire in Lesotho will ultimately be had. Even the rumoured attempts to legalise in one way or another the commission of cases of High Treason, murder, torture and defeating the ends of justice through an amnesty law, are futile. Another law to reinstate those cases will be made in the future. This is not a mere hope. It is a promise! No law legalising crime will stand even after 40 years.
As I signed off here, word came out from Senegal that the AU backed criminal trial of former Chadian President Habre has been completed and he has been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed while in office more than 25 years ago. Another pointer that committing crimes and using office to shield you is only short term measure.