Statement on the assassination attempt and harassment of Eswatini lawyer Maxwell Nkambule
Lawyers for Lawyers is concerned about the assassination attempt as well as the harassment and intimidation of Mr Maxwell Nkambule. Lawyers for Lawyers is furthermore concerned about the overall failures of the authorities in the Kingdom of Eswatini to ensure the safety of lawyers in carrying out their professional legal duties and to properly investigate incidents of violence against lawyers.
Mr. Nkambule is a human rights lawyer in the kingdom of Eswatini and reportedly has been attacked due to his representation of freedom fighters facing charges under the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2018 in Eswatini.
On 7 December 2022, Nkambule was on his way home after a consult with clients when a car approached that had been following him for some time. As he stopped to see who was in the car, one of the persons pulled out a gun and pointed it at Nkambule’s head. A shot was fired in his direction, but Nkambule managed to dodge the bullet by quickly driving away in his car.
Unfortunately, Mr. Nkambule later experienced harassment again in relation to his work on politically sensitive cases. For at least two nights in the month of December, multiple unidentified men were surveilling his house, accompanied by a drone that entered his private property. In the middle of the night, they observed his house and its surroundings for hours before eventually leaving.
After complaining to the police about these events, they informed him that an investigation was not possible and did not assist him in any manner, nor did they try to identify the persons or take any action to guarantee the safety of Nkambule. As a result, Nkambule had to flee the country and could not represent his clients in court in January.
It is not the first time that similar attacks have happened in Eswatini. One of the colleagues of Nkambule, Thulani Maseko, tragically passed away because of a similar incident. On 21 January 2023, Maseko was shot in his home, leading to his death. Maseko was a human rights lawyer committed to promoting justice, peace and human rights in Eswatini. His murder appears to have been an act of retaliation for his legal professional duties. Thus far, the assailants have not been identified nor has a proper investigation into his death been conducted by the relevant authorities.
These attacks are part of a wider crackdown on civil society that has been taking place in Eswatini since 2021. Then, waves of protests broke out as a result of the deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. The authorities responded to the protests by banning them and sending police officers who shot at the protesters.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, Article 16, states clearly that governments must ensure that lawyers “are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance or improper interference”, ‘are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely both within their own country and abroad’ and “shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.”
Article 17 states that “Where the security of lawyers is threatened as a result of discharging their functions, they shall be adequately safeguarded by the authorities.”
Lawyers for Lawyers is deeply concerned that the attacks on and intimidation of Mr. Nkambule is connected to and serves to unlawfully restrict his legitimate activities as a lawyer, especially in the light of the assassination of one of his colleagues who was also targeted multiple times for exercising his profession as a lawyer and the continuous unsafe situation for lawyers to exercise their profession in Eswatini. To fulfil their professional duties effectively, lawyers should be able to practice their profession safely and should be free from improper interference, fear of reprisals, and unreasonable or illegitimate restrictions.
Lawyers play a vital role in upholding the rule of law and the protection of human rights and their work is indispensable for public confidence in the administration of justice and to ensure access to justice for all.
Therefore, in order to maintain the rule of law and allow legal professionals to fulfil their role in protecting rights and freedoms, Lawyers for Lawyers urgently calls on the authorities in the Kingdom of Eswatini to:
- Guarantee the safety and physical integrity of Mr. Nkambule;
- Thoroughly investigate the attacks on Mr. Nkambule with the aim of identifying those responsible and holding perpetrators accountable in order to serve justice and to prevent re-occurrence of violations;
- Thoroughly investigate the death of Mr. Maseko with the aim of identifying those responsible and holding perpetrators accountable in order to serve justice and to prevent re-occurrence of violations;
- Ensure that all lawyers in the Kingdom of Eswatini are able to assist their clients without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference and without threats, prosecutions or sanctions for any action they take in accordance with internationally recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.
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