The Prime Minister of Lesotho has recently been charged with his wife’s murder, raising questions of whether defences of sovereign immunity remain persuasive in the country. Thomas Thabane is currently on trial for the shooting of his former wife, Lipolelo Thebane, two days before his inauguration in 2017. In Court, PM Thebane has recently raised an interesting legal defence, that of sovereign immunity. In essence, he argues that as a sitting Prime Minister, his position protects him from criminal prosecution and that even if there is strong evidence against him, he is not required to be held to account.
Thabane’s argument is a remnant of the legacies of colonialism in the country. Lesotho, having previously been a protectorate of the British Empire, has a dual legal system with one part relying on British common law. Traditionally, the Queen and her representatives could not be charged for criminal offences, arising from the idea that the monarch was “God’s representative on Earth,” and one who could do no wrong. As of yet, Lesotho’s common law system has not explicitly ruled out the possibility that those in high positions of power do not need to answer for their actions.
The current political crisis is threatening to destabilize the country as citizens demand Minister Thebane resign with immediate effect. Until the High Court brings down their ruling, Thebane is still in charge of making major decisions for the state, wielding significant power and influence. The World Bank argues that despite improvements made to the developing country, more than half of the population lives in poverty and experiences severe food shortages as a result of drought. This will be further exacerbated by public unrest over the Prime Minister’s criminal charge. Thus far, unnamed spokesmen for the Prime Minister’s Party-state that, “The matter has not been addressed,” and refuse to comment further.
Initially, it was Maesaiah Thebane, the Prime Minister’s second wife, who was charged with the murder of Lipolelo Thebane. However, Police have recently begun to shift focus on the Prime Minister and it is yet to be decided whether both or one, will be named as alleged perpetrators. Maesaiah Thebane, has been heavily criticized for influencing political appointments and committing fraud and money laundering within the country. Marrying the Prime Minister two months after the murder of his first wife, she was widely accused of having the strongest motive to removing Lipolelo.
The significance of Thebane’s arguments is not to be underestimated. The concept that individuals in positions of power are above the law remains strong in many countries. It has been this “defence” that has allowed wealthy individuals to get away with actions that have resulted in corruption, violence and instability. It is essential that these arguments and defences be heavily criticized and overruled.
The current Lesothian trial is still ongoing and it is not yet known whether the High Court of Lesotho will accept the validity of the Prime Minister’s arguments. Regardless of whether Minister Thebane is guilty or not, his arguments for immunity from the law remain prominently out of place and antithetical to democracy. As of now, the world must wait to watch the latest developments.