Swaziland is deliberately traumatizing political activists

Swaziland’s absolute monarchy has a record of harassing, torturing and arbitrarily detaining political activists, and then either leaving them to rot in prison while waiting for the completion of seemingly endless court cases, or releasing them on bail, after which they must endure arduous bail conditions for years on end.

This harassment is both a way of trying to physically, mentally and financially break the individual activist, and a way to use him or her as an example to other potential activists. “Look what we do to anyone who is bold enough to challenge our power”.

And this harassment can have a profound effect. “Detention without trial  [or the endless detentions awaiting trial] is not only a punitive act of physical and mental torture of a few patriotic individuals, but it is also a calculated act of psychological terror against the struggling millions. It is a terrorist programme for the psychological siege of the whole nation,” Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa Thiongo’o, wrote from his prison cell.

“Torture is intended to terrorize the population represented by the individual,” says a study by the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT). “Torture may have a dramatic effect on the social and political life of a country or region. The political action of the opposition is paralyzed and the price of being a political activist is very high.”

Secretary General of the Swaziland Youth Council, and Commerce student, Maxwell Dlamini, has experienced the traumatizing effects of such treatment. He has been detained, tortured, imprisoned, charged with terrorism, and is presently on bail, awaiting the completion of two trials against him that could see him sentenced to a total of 44 years in prison.

He has also been denied proper treatment in prison after having suffered a stroke that meant he could not use the lower part of his left arm and he was forcefully interrogated by what appeared to be hired South African police investigators without his lawyer being present.

“I had to be admitted for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder because of the torture and inhumane treatment I received at the hands of the police”, explains Maxwell. His torturers repeatedly suffocated him with a plastic bag, threatened to kill him, made him stand naked, insulted him, and left him in a cell with no lights, toilet, food or water.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder leads to “repetitive, intrusive recollection or re-enactment of the event in memories, daytime imagery, or dreams,” according to the study by the RCT.  Something that Maxwell literally has to face several times a week.

Because his bail conditions include reporting four times a week at the police station in Mbabane (40 km from Maxwell’s home), they only serve to reinforce the traumatic events. “The police reporting and court case i taking a hard toll on my well being”, he says. “The treatment from the cops makes the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder worse for me”.

Maxwell also believes that there is an element of harassment in the charade of having to report to the police. “It is a physical, psychological and emotional trauma for me to wake up and have to go to Mbabane to report. I have to wait for up to two hours just to sign on the record book and go back. Never mind the financial drain it is for me for going to Mbabane everyday to report, especially as I don’t have any source of income [Maxwell lost his government scholarship due to his political activism]”.

But Maxwell is nevertheless in some respects more fortunate than his fellow-political prisoners, many of whom suffer without the support and publicity that Maxwell has received through amongst other things the international Free Maxwell Dlamini campaign that saw thousands of people from all over the world campaign for his release.

The support that he has received from both inside and outside Swaziland is keeping him in relatively good spirits, he says. “Thanks to the support of democracy loving people I am coping. If it wasn’t for all the support I have received, I am sure I would have been torn apart by now”.

Maxwell doesn’t regret the price he has had to pay for his efforts and nor is he afraid or ashamed to tell his story, however hard it may be to do so. “What drives me is the creation of a just society. I don’t feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty for being subjected to the most inhumane treatment at the hands of security agents”.

And neither should he be. Not for himself, nor for other political activists who risk being tortured by the regime. For “keeping silent about the existence of torture and silencing the voices of torture survivors gives impunity to the perpetrators,” as the RCT study concludes.

One of Maxwell’s heroes, political activist Steve Biko, who paid the ultimate price for his fearlessness in fighting the apartheid regime in South Africa, certainly epitomised the need to overcome fear in the fight against repressive and violent regimes, even under interrogation and torture. “You are either alive and proud or you are dead,” said Biko. “And your method of death can in itself be a politicizing thing. So if you can overcome the personal fear for death then you are on the way.”

Maxwell is charged with advocating a boycott of this years undemocratic elections in Swaziland, and for the alleged possession of explosives, a charge that Maxwell strenuously denies. Maxwell has been nominated for two human rights awards – the Irish “Front Line Defenders Award for Human Right’s Defenders at Risk” and the Norwegian “Student Peace Prize.”

Swaziland ratified the UN Convention Against Torture in 2004. Nevertheless, Amnesty International recently reported that “severe beatings and suffocation torture” are “persistent forms of ill-treatment” in police custody in Swaziland. In their most recent report on freedom in the world, American NGO Freedom House gave Swaziland a 7 – the lowest score – for political rights, stating that “torture in interrogations” has “increased in recent years”, and that “leaders and participants in anti-government protests” were “specifically targeted”.

You can support Maxwell’s struggle by contributing towards his tuition fees, bail fee, or medical bills for his Post-traumatic Disorder treatment through Africa Contact’s Mandela Foundation.

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