‘Most visits are trouble-free’

Trying to complain and demand an investigation into having been beaten up and threatened by security police in Swaziland via the UK Foreign Office takes its time. In my case seven and a half years and counting.

Me and my colleagues were detained by police without charge, beaten, threatened, denied any legal representation, food, drink, or visits to the toilet during a five hour ordeal at Manzini Regional Police Headquarters, in Africa’s last absolute monarchy Swaziland.

The UK Foreign Office assured me recently that my case, ongoing since September 2010, “is still open with us”, and that the they will be contacting the Swazi authorities and “following a regular review of your case between those in Swaziland and our teams in London, including specialist legal advisors.”

“You may be aware waiting for a response can be extremely slow,” the email concluded. Indeed I am.

Poor human rights record
When you read the foreign travel advice for Swaziland on gov.uk, you are told that “most visits are trouble-free” but that “you should avoid rallies, demonstrations and gatherings as these can be dispersed forcefully by the police.”

Even though I knew of the poor human rights record of Swaziland’s government and police forces, I was therefore not worried about going on a project monitoring visit for my employer, Danish solidarity organisation Afrika Kontakt.

I was there with two colleagues during the democratic movement’s first Global Week of Action, an annual event organized by the democratic movement of Swaziland to coincide with Swaziland’s Independence Day.

‘This is Swaziland’
But when around fifteen plain clothes police officers burst through the door of our partners office, knocking me to the ground, throttling and beating my two Danish colleagues and two Swazi partners, it was obvious that we were not going to have what the FCO refers to as a “trouble-free visit.”

The police continued to terrorize and intimidate us at the police station. I was elbowed in the stomach a couple of times, one officer told us that we would “never return to your country. You will die here. This is Swaziland, not Denmark.” Officers threated our Swazi partners with torture by simulated drowning. All requests for water, food, a lawyer or being allowed to use the bathroom were refused.

At one point the four of us stood in the yard of the police station, one of the Swazi partners being beaten up behind us. Fifty or so police officers were standing menacingly in front of us forming a crescent. They had truncheons, firearms and full riot gear, so we thought we were going to get a severe beating. Luckily our Swazi partners managed to talk them out of doing so.

During our interrogation, by eight officers, we were again threatened and wrongly accused of financially supporting PUDEMO, a political movement fighting for a constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy. But also a movement that is banned under Swaziland’s Suppression of Terrorism Act, an act that Amnesty International refers to as being “inherently repressive.”

Pressure paid off
Luckily, I had managed to send a short mail to our office back in Denmark that the police were coming for us, moments before they barged into the office. Our office had, unbeknownst to us, replied that if we didn’t answer their mail within five minutes they would contact the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swazi Consulate, which they did.

Behind the scenes, the Ministry had been piling the pressure on the Swazi authorities for our release. It paid off, as the police who had until now been terrorizing us all of a sudden starting behaving nicely towards us. Eventually they drove us to the airport so that we could catch our plane to South Africa. We were told never to return to Swaziland.

There were probably two immediate reasons for the unprovoked attack by the police in retrospect. Firstly, that the police wrongly believed that we were to take part in the protest marches in connection with the Global Week of Action together with the many other mainly South African foreigners, most or all of whom were also detained and/or deported.

Secondly, we had spent around fifteen minutes at a seminar at the Tum’s George Hotel listening to a lecture about the history of the democratic movement in Swaziland. When around a hundred police officers arrived, and some of the South African’s who were attending the seminar started leaving through the back door, we decided to join them.

Apparently, the police subsequently arrested the forty-five people who remained and had been very angry that we had left.

‘No response’
When I contacted by Foreign Office, to complain about our treatment at the hands of the Swazi police, I was told a week later that the FCO “take all allegations of mistreatment against British nationals very seriously.” The FCO would “raise the allegations” with the Swazi authorities and “ask for an investigation to be conducted and the perpetrator(s) brought to justice.”

Two months later, I was informed that the FCO had not received an answer to its request and that the High Commission would “raise the allegations directly with Swazi government officials in January,” when visiting Swaziland.

In 2011, 2012 and 2013, I received emails from the FCO, saying that they had had “no response” to their inquiries, but that they would be “repeating our request for an investigation to your allegations.” In 2016, I was told that “we have to-date no new information on the investigation.”

Being white is newsworthy
I talked to the Times of Swaziland on the phone from the airport before we left Swaziland. They published a couple of articles about the incident. I also called Amnesty International once back in Denmark. They mentioned our ordeal in their 2011 International Report, as did the US Department of State in their 2010 country report of Human Right Practices.

We also contacted the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Minister for Development Cooperation, Søren Pind, replied that he was “worried about the human rights situation in Swaziland. Denmark has officially raised the matter with Swaziland emphasizing that we are seriously worried about these events. At the same time we have stressed that we obviously expect the authorities to investigate this matter thoroughly.”

The incident also made many of the Danish national papers, the two national TV channels and several international newspapers.

Learning experience
I have been to Swaziland several times since 2010 on project visits without serious incident, as have my colleagues. Being a white visitor with a burgundy passport, I can afford to see the incident as a learning experience – the kind of experience that people in Swaziland and in other countries around the world experience every day, only much, much worse and often with a lot less media coverage

Like Sipho Jele, who was beaten to death by police for wearing a t-shirt with a PUDEMO-logo. Or Bheki Dlamini, Maxwell Dlamini and the many other Swazi activists who have been tortured and end up spending months and years in prison, detained without facing a judge, eventually to be either released, kept on bail or sentenced on trumped up charges.

The Global Week of Action has continued as an annual event even though the police routinely assault those who dare take part in the event. Last year thousands of Swazis marched through the capital Mbabane to deliver a petition which calls for democracy and socioeconomic justice to the government.

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