By Gontse Gee Hlophe

It was just after 9 pm on Saturday, 21 January, when a cold-blooded murderer descended on the home of Swazi human rights lawyer Thulani Rudolf Maseko and fired three bullets which ended the life of a man who made an immeasurable contribution to the advancement of justice and human rights.  The assassination of Maseko happened kaLuhleko, which is located just over 40 kilometres southwest of Manzini.Hours before the brazen assassination of the renowned human rights activist, King Mswati III, during an address to his Traditional Regiments at Engabezweni Royal Residence said activists had “started the violence first” and “more trouble was coming for them”.“People should not shed tears and complain about mercenaries killing them,” the king said in his address.On Saturday, 28 January Maseko was laid to rest after a  memorial and funeral service that was attended by activists from across the African continent, officials from United Nations and foreign diplomats.  Maseko’s murder has drawn scathing and widespread criticism and international outrage, with activists calling for an independent probe into the killing.“The brutal killing of Maseko is the latest in a series of chilling attacks on pro-democracy activists in Eswatini.  “It is essential to promptly conduct an independent, thorough, and effective investigation capable of identifying those responsible,” said Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, deputy director in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.The Eswatini Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) has described Maseko as a selfless and humble person with a heart filled with unending kindness.MSF also said the murdered human rights lawyer wanted the best for his country and its people. “A staunch believer in the rule of law and constitutionalism, Maseko used his professional legal skills to advocate for democratic reforms and peaceful transition. It is deeply saddening that his work and selfless dedication have been repaid in such a ruthless and callous act”, said Vice-Chairperson of Southern Defenders, Professor Adriano Nuvunga.His killing has heightened the sense of fear among human rights activists in the country. “To be frank, I don’t feel safe, and nobody does. From what I’ve got from many lawyers, especially human rights lawyers, people are contemplating running away from the country,” said Sibusiso Nhlabatsi, a human rights lawyer and a colleague of the late Maseko.However, the government of Eswatini has denounced rife speculations that Maseko was killed because of his commitment to fighting for human rights and justice.In a press statement, a government official Alpheous Nxumalo said the government distanced itself and the country’s authorities from the murder.He added that speculations about the government’s involvement “are dangerous as they hamper the investigations and take the attention away from the real criminals”.According to Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF), recently there have been reports indicating escalation of violence against pro-democracy activists and those who are critical of the government in Eswatini. Of particular concern to AJJF is that the brutal killing of Maseko comes in the wake of reports that the government of Eswatini has hired mercenaries to assist the police and the military to suppress and eliminate pro-democracy activists in the country. At the time of his death, Maseko was a senior member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, and a chairperson of the MSF, a convergence of various stakeholders calling for constitutional reforms in Eswatini. A founding member of Southern Defenders, Maseko has been described by colleagues and fellow activists as a man who made an “immense contribution to the advancement of justice and human rights not only in Eswatini but throughout Southern Africa. “He has carried out several fact-finding missions to countries like Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi where he reported on the deterioration of civic space in the region.”“In Eswatini, many will attest that Maseko persistently preached the message of love and peace. In the face of great adversity, he remained steadfast in the fight for freedom and justice, courageously raising awareness of the injustice suffered by the people of Eswatini. “A leading Eswatini political activist and government critic, Maseko suffered an arbitrary arrest, detention and imprisonment for two years after he expressed an opinion about the administration of justice in Eswatini. He also made a representation in Swaziland National Ex-Miners Workers Association in their challenge against the government,” read a statement issued by AJJF.The organisation also called on the government of Eswatini “to permit and support an independent inquiry into the killing of Maseko and the general human rights situation in the country.”In what has been described by activists as a sham, the government of the tiny landlocked country expressed its condolences to the Maseko family, adding, “his demise is a loss to the Nation and his footprints as a human rights lawyer are there as proof of his contribution to the country. The government  would like to assure the public that the country’s security forces had already begun investigating the circumstances of his death and his killers would be brought to book.”Maseko leaves behind his wife, Tanele and two children, aged 10 and 6.

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