‘I came home at the wrong time’
Thabang Phaila — a Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) Second Lieutenant who was jailed for 12 years on 6 May 2014 for his role in a mutiny connected to political riots which rocked Lesotho in 1998 — is now a free man.
after 15 years in exile in South africa, Mr Phaila (45) returned to Lesotho in September 2013 under a government amnesty granted to every Mosotho who had left the country due to politically-connected crimes.
however, Mr Phaila was arrested by the LDF Military Police on 5 October 2013, and kept in detention until november when he was charged for mutiny and alternatively, intended mutiny.
after his conviction for mutiny, Mr Phaila was sentenced to 12 years in jail on 6 May, but challenged the ruling before the Court of appeal, while he was incarcerated in the Maseru Central Prison.
On 24 October 2014, the appeal Court overturned the court martial’s decision, and Mr Phaila walked out of jail a free man on 31 October 2014 at around 5pm.
Three days after his release, Mr Phaila on Monday gave the Lesotho Times ( LT) an exclusive interview on his life behind bars, his newfound freedom, the administration of justice during his trial, his plans for the future, and changes he would like to see in Lesotho’s prisons.
LT: Finally, you are a free man. Having been in jail that long (eight months in military detention and five months in the Maseru Central Prison). How does it feel to be free? Did you ever think that someday, you would be released from jail and lead a normal life?
Phaila: Despite the manner in which my case was handled, which was devoid of justice, I was still optimistic because of the legal channels I had taken for my appeal.
I was optimistic that I would emerge victorious. Just like in a game of soccer, you either win or lose, but I still had that spark of hope that very soon, I’d be out. and indeed I did win the appeal.
LT: You seem to suggest that justice was not served during your court martial…
Phaila: I was charged with intended mutiny and desertion, and not mutiny. but when judgment was handed down, and I was sentenced, vital facts of the case were not regarded at all.
More especially the fact that the charge sheet had shown that we had meetings in Maseru and Mafeteng.
but the prosecution relied heavily on evidence from just one crown witness, who claimed that while planning the mutiny, we would hold meetings in Koalabata, evidence which was never corroborated by anyone.
Ultimately I was sentenced based on evidence from one witness, for mutiny and intended mutiny. They did not even specify how long I would spend in jail for desertion and for mutiny.
The judgment was also based on sentences handed down to people convicted for mutiny in 1998. had I been charged for intended mutiny, which I should have, they realised that they couldn’t link me to the part I was assumed to have played in the mutiny.
LT: There were so many people linked to the 1998 mutiny, who were charged, sentenced and imprisoned for many years. Today you are a free man and there might be a school of thought out there that if your co-accomplices served their jail sentences why not Thabang Phaila?
Phaila: I believe if the law is broken, everybody should be brought before the courts of law. They did also bring me before the courts of law and I was found guilty despite trying to prove my innocence.
but now I have proven myself to be innocent. The Court of appeal acquitted me because I have proven my innocence.
LT: Upon learning of your arrest last year, the tracked down some of the people with whom you were said to have been with during the mutiny, such as Reverend Monyau. And he told us fair and square that you were part of them. Don’t you anticipate that there will be some animosity towards you from those who are still alive because your case has been treated differently? Phaila: as far as I’m concerned and based on the court martial judgment, I have served my sentence.
by the way, back in 1998, there were people who were spared and allowed to go free while others were sentenced.
I also learnt, although I was already gone, that there were people who were released even before they could complete their sentences.
Maybe I could also have been spared; maybe I could have been released. Or maybe I could also have served my sentence like the others, if it was then.
but when all is said and done, I was prosecuted. So, whoever harbours feelings of hatred towards me, who has served their sentence, it would seem unfair but it’s up to them.
after all, two people can have similar charges imposed on them, but receive different treatment before the law.
I have gone to prison and I know what it means to be in jail and problems encountered by prisoners. I know the hardships of prison.
LT: Why did you run away in the first place if you believed in your innocence?
Phaila: I ran away because I feared for my life, more especially, because some of the people convicted were my friends. There was no special category of people picked out to be hauled before the courts of law.
People were charged by association. I feared that my life would be in danger because of people I associated with.
I was not scared of prosecution as such; I just did not want to be linked to certain things, especially where there was military intervention by SADC (Southern african Development Community).
The intention initially, was to return as soon as the dust had settled and the storm was over. but as time passed, things became more complex and coming back home became less of an option as conditions were not conducive for me.
but with the new regime (which assumed power in June 2012), I came back anticipating that there would be some significant changes.
but as far as I’m concerned, there are no changes because upon my return, I was arrested, charged, sentenced and imprisoned.
LT: When you returned, you said it was under the auspices of a political amnesty extended to political refugees by the coalition government. But in their affidavits during your trial, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, who is also the Minister of Defence and his former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (Molibeli Soulo) denied any such amnesty. Why did you use it in your defence?
Phaila: I decided to come under the amnesty because I realised that there were people who had run away but came back under the protection of the amnesty, even though we had fled the country under different circumstances.
again, the 1998 issues were a mixed bag of politics and military problems, so I felt that much as I was a military man, I qualified to return under the protection of the amnesty.
I also decided to handle the amnesty talk with all the necessary care, hence the steps my family took to ensure that I would be safe under the amnesty.
but I guess I sort of got caught in the political crossfire when I returned, as circumstances were not necessarily normal. This I say because of the confusion created and strong disagreements between former Justice Minister Mophato Monyake, the PM and Ntate Soulo, regarding the amnesty.
Phaila: Life on the run is not nice at all. The fact that you can’t go home at all, or see your family, is very painful. I couldn’t participate in family issues such as funerals of friends and family members and other things. Such things stressed me a lot.
but I did survive, although living in a foreign land is just so painful and the loneliness stays with you. You also always wonder what the future holds.
It’s unlike someone who leaves at will, knowing they can always come back when they so wish. but I must say being on the run taught me some lessons about life and now I know I can survive anywhere in the world.
LT: How did you feel when you realised what was happening?
Phaila: I was sad to realise that I was caught in a political crossfire, although I do not blame anyone for it. I guess I came home at the wrong time, but some people could have gotten the impression that I could be involved in the political showdown between the PM, Ntate Soulo and the minister. but I do not blame anyone, not the PM, Soulo or Monyake. I just arrived at the wrong time.
LT: Life on the run for 15 years…how difficult was it?
LT: Did you live in one place or did you move from place to place? If you moved from place to place, how long did you stay in a particular place? Phaila: I had to move from place to place, once every three or four years, especially after realising that the interest to catch me was that of the military instead of the state.
I also discovered that if there was a strong link between the military, police and the national Security Service, I could have been caught a long time ago.
I strongly wanted to come but also feared that I would be tortured or harmed in some way.
LT: Currently there is fear that the prevailing political and security situation could culminate in events similar to those of 1998. Having seen it all before, when you look at things now, what is your analysis of the situation by comparison?
Phaila: although I’m not a politician, my assessment is while there is some political tolerance that seems to come with basotho being more politically mature, I see the situation as being more dangerous than in 1998. however, I don’t think there’s anybody, or any Mosotho who wishes to see another 1998.
I just hope a harmonious solution will be found to the security situation, and not something that will culminate in bloodshed or loss of life.
There is some serious political tension, for which I am hoping for a lasting peaceful solution. but recent security events indicate that things are worse than in 1998. For instance, back then no senior political figures were compelled to run away, like it happened recently.
LT: What would you like to see change about the military?
Phaila: The military needs a great deal of international assistance, especially in the application of justice, both military and civilian assistance. They are also not organised as they do not prepare for cases on time, while keeping people in detention.
We need civilians to be engaged by the military, to speed up services.
LT: What do you plan to do with your life going forward, now that you’re certain of the fact that you have your freedom?
Phaila: My intention is to continue with my legal studies, which I abandoned in 1998. Truth be told, when I came back I wanted to do something different.
but now having been in prison and being confronted with certain realities, such as innocent people serving jail terms, because of the ignorance of our justice system, I would want to continue with the legal studies.
Some people have been convicted based on circumstantial evidence, while most in there have been convicted of petty crimes as well as crimes such as stock-theft.
The majority of people in our jails are illiterate and there are only a few convicted for white-collar crimes.
When you talk to them, you will learn that most decided to defend themselves because they did not have access to legal aid or did not know how to get assistance.
Then, there are so many awaiting-trial prisoners but you can’t even tell the difference because they are not different from serving convicts, we are all treated the same.
Jail is like a dumping ground, as some people spend years in there while further investigations are being conducted.
again, we have prisoners who are from faraway places such as Qacha’s nek and Thaba-tseka, whose lawyers and families cannot access them due to distance and lack of funds. But they find themselves awaiting their trials here in Maseru.
So, these issues reignited the need in me to further my legal studies even though I had changed my mind before landing in jail.
I need to practice so that I can contribute to improving our legal system.
LT: What can you say about the state of our prisons in general?
Phaila: Life in prison is harsh and the congestion is very bad as 16 people have to share a cell. We sleep on the floor on a thin mattress like sardines and that’s where I say fundamental human rights are being abused. Yes, some people land in jail because of terrible crimes, but jail is also supposed to be for their rehabilitation, because indeed people change.
Serving a jail sentence does not mean that our rights have to be violated.
But I did survive, although living in a foreign land is just so painful and the loneliness stays with you. You also always wonder what the future holds. It’s unlike someone who leaves at will, knowing they can always come back when they so wish. But I must say being on the run taught me s
THE political riots of 1998 resulted in the desruction of infrastructure in Maseru.