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MPS CASE: WITNESSES REFUSE TO TESTIFY AFTER LATEST ARSON ATTACK

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MBABANE – Fear gripped witnesses yesterday when called to testify during the trial of Members of Parliament (MPs) Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube.

They put their foot down that they would not testify. They refused to come to the High Court, following the petrol-bombing of a house belonging to Eswatini Beverages Risk Manager, Sifiso Simelane, who testified in the same matter on March 22, 2022. Simelane’s house, which is located at Nhlambeni, was petrol-bombed by unknown people on Tuesday night. When Simelane testified during the trial, he told the court that he saw the people who caused damage at Eswatini Beverages, during the peak of the political unrest last year. He said they were many and he could not estimate how many they were because a lot was going on. He mentioned that police, soldiers and Correctional Services officers were called to the scene and they came in different groups.

Gunshots

Simelane submitted that he heard gunshots being fired, but he was not aware of any cases of people who died there. He also told the court that he did not see any dead people when Eswatini Beverages was looted, vandalised and burnt on June 27, 2021.  Some social media users, who were unhappy with the evidence he gave to the court, started making threats against him on the following day of his testimony in court. Fifteen days later, his house was petrol-bombed. Other witnesses, including police officers, testified after Simelane. MP Mabuza and MP Dube were in court from March 22 to March 25 and the matter was postponed to Tuesday, when Simelane’s house was petrol-bombed. The trial was scheduled to also proceed yesterday and today.

Refused

However, in the wake of the incident of petrol-bombing of Simelane’s house, the case took an unfamiliar turn. The Crown’s witnesses refused to come to court because they were afraid that they would be targets of arsonists. Their refusal to testify was confirmed by attorneys for the parties. The issue of the reluctance of the witnesses to testify was discussed by the legal representatives in Judge Mumcy Dlamini’s chambers. One of the witnesses, who was to testify yesterday, was a police officer and he was the only one who came to court to give evidence. The officer attended the scene of crime at Shoprite in Ezulwini, which was vandalised. He gave evidence based on what he found at the shop. He did not spend more than five minutes in the dock and was excused.

Advocate Gareth Leppan, who appears for the Crown in the matter, together with Principal Crown Counsel Thabo Dlamini, Macebo Nxumalo and Absalom Makhanya, told the court that the police officer was the only witnesses they would parade yesterday. The advocate informed Judge Dlamini that the reason for not parading more witnesses was the issue they had discussed in her chambers. Judge Dlamini postponed the matter to May 3, 2022. Other dates for the case are May 4 and 5, 2022. The postponement was unexpected and those in the public gallery seemed confused as to what was happening. MP Dube, after the proceedings had been adjourned, said; “petrol sewumoshakela nje kanjalo (petrol has been wasted just like that).”
It was after the matter had been postponed that it was gathered that the main reason for the unanticipated postponement of the matter was that Crown witnesses had refused to testify.
An attorney involved in the matter stated that the witnesses made it clear that, with or without subpoenas, they would not testify. They are said to have feared being attacked in a manner like the Eswatini Beverages risk manager.

There had been reluctance from witnesses to testify in this matter, before the beginning of the case in court. A police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some cops were concerned when they were informed before the trial began that they would testify in the matter.  The officer confided that their superiors had to convince them to go and they reluctantly agreed. They were said to have been, among other reasons, worried that their evidence and pictures would be published in newspapers and they would become easy targets if what they said infuriated those who were involved in the calls for change.  Another witness, who is a businessman, went to court but when it was time to take to the witness stand, he refused to enter the courtroom. His complaint was that ‘they would burn me’. Members of the investigating team and the Crown had to convince him to testify and in the end he gave in.   

Confirmed

In an interview with this publication, one of the representatives of the incarcerated MPs, South Africa-based Attorney Sicelo Mngomezulu, confirmed that four witnesses had been subpoenaed to testify yesterday but three could not make it to court. He said the defence had already seen some of the statements of the witnesses who were supposed to testify yesterday. Mngomezulu said to the extent that the prosecution had confirmed that their witnesses were afraid to testify, he had no reason not to believe that. “If that is what they are saying, I presume that to be true, that their witnesses are scared, following whatever they saw on social media platforms or wherever. Possibly it’s true that they are scared. “The changes were communicated to us, to say only one witness, a police officer, has made it and the rest could not, due to fears they had. Our understanding is that it is the witnesses who were supposed to testify today who are scared.  We understand that further witnesses, about five of them, who are yet to be called, four are police officers and the other one is an expert in terrorism matters,” said Mngomezulu.

The four police officers, according to the attorney, are senior officers from all the four regions of the country. He said those were the witnesses the defence expected the prosecution to parade when the matter resumed on May 3, 4 and 5, 2022. “Whether those ones are scared, I don’t know. But those who were supposed to come today (yesterday) are scared, which is regrettable because people should not fear the courts.” The witnesses, according to Mngomezulu, comprised of businesspeople and members of the public who were affected by the unrest. He said his view was that the closing of the prosecution’s case was near but throughout the trial, there had not been a demonstration that his clients were guilty of anything. Mngomezulu said if anything, many, if not all the prosecution witnesses, had not mentioned the MPs by name.  “We are not expecting that the tide will turn now. The prosecution has led a lot of witnesses –more than 50, actually, today we were doing witness number 54 - and my clients are not appearing anywhere. The attorney also mentioned that the situation on the ground had become violent due to alleged non-committal of the authorities to the national dialogue that would bring about change in this country.

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