Thulani Maseko

Thulani Maseko 

Swazi human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist

Thulani Maseko was a renowned Swazi attorney who pioneered public interest, human rights, and constitutional litigation in Swaziland and advocated for the peaceful, negotiated transformation of the kingdom from an absolute monarchy to a multi-party democracy. In 1998, he co-founded the kingdom’s first human rights professional organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (Swaziland). He also founded the Institute for Democracy and Leadership (IDEAL), dedicated to training young leaders for the future, and co-founded the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. In 2009, he founded his public interest law practice, T. R. Maseko Attorneys, through which he represented ordinary Swazis but also a number of pro-democracy activists under constant royal prosecution in the courts. That same year, he was imprisoned on sedition charges for publicly criticizing the absence of democracy in the kingdom. After being released on bail, Maseko launched a legal petition challenging the kingdom’s archaic Sedition Act. He was imprisoned again in 2014 for 14 months for publishing articles criticizing power abuses by the kingdom’s now-disgraced chief justice. That same year, he won a landmark legal battle when the High Court ruled that key provisions of two repressive laws – the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act – were unconstitutional. In 2018, Maseko filed a pending lawsuit challenging the monarch’s unilateral and arbitrary decree renaming the country “Eswatini.” In 2021, as the country descended in deadly unrest following the regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests, Maseko spearheaded public interest litigation challenging the shutdown of the internet, the presence of the armed forces in schools and the arrests of minors. He also rallied civil society groups under the umbrella of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum to call for an internationally-mediated peaceful dialogue. On Jan. 21, 2023, Maseko was shot dead in his home in front of his family in a contract-style killing a few hours after King Mswati III publicly threatened deadly violence against the pro-democracy movement.

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