Dozens killed, tortured and abducted in Eswatini as pro-democracy protests intensify

Amnesty International warned on Friday that the government of Eswatini has launched “a ruthless crackdown on human rights in response to pro-democracy protests, with dozens killed and many others tortured, detained or abducted.”

“The government of Eswatini has launched a full-frontal assault on human rights in response to ongoing pro-democracy protests. Dozens of people have been killed for daring to demand that their government respects human rights, many of them human rights defenders and activists,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

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“We are urging authorities in Eswatini to end this escalating crackdown, and ensure that people can peacefully exercise their human rights including by allowing them to freely express their opinions without fear of violent retaliation.”

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At least 20 people are confirmed to have been killed by state security forces so far, and six others who participated in the protests are unaccounted for. At least 150 protesters have been hospitalized for injuries, including gunshot wounds sustained from live ammunition fired by the police.  

While there have been acts of violence associated with the protests, authorities should have responded in a differentiated and proportionate manner and respect and protect the right to peaceful assembly of those who are demonstrating peacefully. Since protests erupted last month, human rights defenders and activists have been subjected to an orchestrated campaign of intimidation, including being placed under unlawful surveillance with state helicopters hovering over their homes.

Dozens of protesters died at the hands of security forces who were deployed to crush pro-democracy protests. Police and soldiers used excessive force, including live ammunition to deal with protesters.

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Amnesty International is aware, from official sources, of the names of more than 20 people who have been killed by state security forces so far, while at least six others are unaccounted for. Some bodies at Dups Funeral Home and Crematorium, in Manzini, have not yet been identified. More than 150 people have been hospitalized and are being treated for gunshot wounds in Mbabane and Manzini hospitals.

Amnesty International is calling on Eswatini authorities to allow independent pathologists and medical doctors access to those who have been killed,and ensure they can conduct full medical examinations to ascertain the circumstances around their deaths.

“Authorities must carry out a prompt, thorough, impartial, independent and transparent investigation into reports of use of excessive force, and bring to justice anyone suspected to be responsible in fair trials.”

Internet shutdown and victimisation of dissent

Since the start of the protests, Eswatini authorities have worked with independent telecommunications companies like multinational corporation MTN to impose a blackout on communication and internet to curtail the sharing of information online. Amnesty International is calling for an end to the telecommunication blackout, which is a brazen violation of the rights to freedom of expression and information.

Hundreds of protestors have been detained and are facing criminal charges, including malicious damage to property, and a prison capacity crisis is looming amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Authorities are weaponizing the law to crush dissent, a deliberate attempt to silence calls for human rights reforms,” said Deprose Muchena.

Protests began last month in the Kingdom of Eswatini, following the mysterious death of 25-year-old law student, Thabani Nkomonye in May, allegedly at the hands of the police. His body was found on a field in Nhlambeni, about 10km outside Manzini. Protesters, led by young activists, are demanding reform in a country where political activism has been suppressed for years.

Eswatini is the last absolute monarchy on the African continent, and authorities use repressive laws, including the 1938 Sedition and Subversive Activities Act (SSA Act) and the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA), to silence critics. Journalists, human rights defenders and political activists have been jailed simply for speaking out against this repression of dissent for many years.

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