Swaziland frees opposition politicians after a year - is authoritarian King Mswati edging to the centre?

Their release from a maximum security prison near the capital comes a week after the same court freed a magazine editor and a human rights lawyer.

SWAZILAND on Tuesday freed two prominent opposition politicians arrested over a year ago for allegedly calling for the overthrow of absolute monarch King Mswati III, rights activists told news wire AFP.

Their release comes a week after a media chief and a human rights lawyer were set free, in the tiny country that has been tightly ruled by an absolute monarch since 1986.

Mario Masuku and Maxwell Dlamini were detained shortly after criticising the king and the government during a May Day rally organised last year by anti-monarchist trade unions.

“This morning the Supreme Court, after hearing an appeal, unanimously decided that the two be released on bail,” said Wandile Dludlu, who heads a coalition of pro-democracy groups.

Mario Masuku’s son Mzwandile told news agency AFP the court granted bail to his father, 63, and Dlamini, 24, on grounds that they had been held for over 13 months without trial.

Their release from a maximum security prison near the capital Mbabane comes a week after the same court freed a magazine editor and a human rights lawyer who had been jailed for over a year for contempt of court.

“Much work remains to be done, but this is yet another strike against dictatorship, and a small victory for justice,” said Jeffrey Smith, a director with the New York-based Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights centre.

Masuku, the president of the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), was detained together with Dlamini, the general secretary of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).

The “terrorism” charges against them have not been dropped, said Dludlu.

As part of the bail conditions, the pair are forbidden from addressing rallies.

Political parties have been banned since 1973 in Swaziland, a small kingdom landlocked within South Africa. Groups that push for multi-party democracy are banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.

This month, a Commonwealth mission following a week long visit to the country said it would continue to pressure the authorities to democratise and allow political parties to contest elections.

The body, following a review of 2013 elections, had urged the country seek to separate powers between the government, parliament and the courts, and that it consider reviewing its constitution, ahead of polls in 2018, mission leader Bakili Muluzi said.

Mswati earlier this year urged his subjects to “protect the country” from pro-democracy groups which portrayed a negative image of the nation abroad. 

The monarch has an annual household budget of around $60 million in a country where about 60% of the population live on less than $1 a day.

Next month, a new documentary, ‘Swaziland – Africa’s last absolute monarchy’, that chronicles the fight for democracy and socio-economic justice in the country through the eyes of Bheki Dlamini, a young activist and leading member of PUDEMO, will open. 

It is made by award-winning Danish investigative journalist Tom Heinemann.

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