- The Sipho Jele saga went on on Sunday, as relatives and friends tried to bury the trade unionist that had died in police detention. Around 500 armed police officers disrupted the funeral and arrested more Swazi civil society leaders.
In the totalitarian kingdom of Swaziland, the case of trade unionist and opposition activist Sipho Jele is causing increased public uproar. Mr Jele was detained on a 1 May labour event for wearing a T-shirt with the symbols of Swaziland's main opposition party PUDEMO, which is banned.
The activist died while in police detention, with security officers claiming Mr Jele had committed suicide while unions and the opposition claim he was killed. Contradictions and a growing public outrage over the circumstances of Mr Jele's death led Swaziland's Prime Minister to promise an inquiry into the case.
Last week, Mr Jele's case took another turn as the traditional chief in the dead activist's home village of Ncabaneni - standing in a feudal relation to Swaziland's King Mswati III - refused Mr Jele's family permission to bury his body in the area. The burial lands, owned by the King, would not accommodate for a person who stood in direct opposition to Swaziland's feudal traditions, the family was told.
In response to this refusal, the family filed an urgent application to the high-court seeking permission to go bury Mr Jele. This application was later abandoned after the chief and the police gave the family their word that the funeral would not be stopped.
This weekend, the family organised for a memorial service in the town of Mazini and Mr Jele's funeral in Ncabaneni. Family, friends and political allies of the diseased prepared their participation.
But already on Saturday's memorial service in Mazini, police outnumbered mourners. About 100 uniformed police were present, according to local sources. Swazi trade union sources say police at the service "began to harass well known members of the country's various political formations," including leaders of a youth league, the teachers' trade union and student association of Swaziland.
"The three, fearing that their comrades would be attending their own three different funerals next week, had no other option but to hide from the police. They were so desperate to elude the police that they had to endure the journey to Ncabaneni hidden next to Jele's coffin inside the hearse," local sources report.
When the coffin got to Ncabaneni, mourners were given the impression the funeral would proceed orderly, despite the presence of an estimated 500 heavily armed police officers. But Swazi authorities had other plans.
Mourners were shocked when at the early hours of Sunday morning, just before the actual burial, police stormed towards the coffin and ripped the PUDEMO flag from it and told the large crowd that the funeral would not be held in the area as had been earlier ordered.
The three political leaders, who had narrowly escaped detention in Mancini the day before, were finally apprehended and taken into custody on the same charges that the late Mr Jele had been arrested for, which is wearing PUDEMO T-shirts. Nothing has been heard of the three activists since then.
Mr Jele thus still has not been buried and three more activists are now detained in the case. Meanwhile, the Jele case has caused international alarm over the poor human rights standards in Swaziland.
Equally important, the Jele case has developed into the most discussed issue in the kingdom, with the otherwise careful Swazi press thoroughly covering every detail in the case in an increasingly outspoken manner. Mr Jele's death thus is threatening to become a scandal shaking the foundations of the kingdom.
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