‘I came home at the wrong time’

Lesotho Times - - Feature - Bongiwe Zih­langu

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.

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