Swaziland, the King of Old-Fashioned Repression

03/20/2015 11:02 am ET | Updated May 20, 2015

It sounds like a case from the 1950s: a human rights lawyer thrown into jail after daring to criticize the country's judiciary. But Thulani Maseko is unlucky enough to be living in Swaziland, Africa's only remaining absolute monarchy, and to be blessed with the sort of personal courage that makes him vocal about injustice.

He's a 45-year-old lawyer critical of the country's court system and antiquated repression. Few have spoken out against the brutality of King Mswati's police or his corruption. Like other dictators educated in the West, Mswati's exposure to democracy has not persuaded him to respect human rights in his own country.

Fear of the monarchy is real. Over tea in Swazi's capital Mbabane years ago, an elderly priest told me he would denounce the pope before he would dare criticize the king.

Maseko and magazine editor Bheki Makhubu were arrested a year ago and sentenced to two years in jail for their presumption to question royal authority. An eloquent, dissident prisoner is a dictatorship's worst nightmare, and Maseko has continued to haunt the regime from inside jail, sending out letters explaining why he stands against injustice.

In August last year, soon after his sham trial, he wrote to President Obama from cell 4D, calling him "an inspiration." He told the president that "in the context of Swaziland, dissenting and opposing voices are silenced, harassed, and thrown into jail. The system of government is based on one man with all political authority, which is sanctioned by the constitution; this is the supreme law of the land. Section 79 of the 2005 Constitution prohibits the lawful existence and recognition of political parties, which effectively undermines democracy and democratic governance."

The U.S. government does not disagree; its latest human rights report describes Swaziland as "an absolute monarchy. King Mswati III and Queen Mother Ntombi, the king's mother who rules as his co-monarch, have ultimate authority over the cabinet, legislature, and judiciary.... Swazi citizens remained unable to choose their government."

Maseko's letter to Obama was embarrassing enough for the Swazi king and generated significant international media coverage. Then this week, on the anniversary of his arrest, he wrote another letter, recalling the experience of previous prisoners from biblical figures to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. "In spite of the prison hardships, we are not deterred. We are not discouraged. We are not fazed. We are not shaken. We are not intimidated. Yes, we are not broken," he wrote. This seems to have been too much for the Swazi dictatorship to tolerate, and his lawyer reported that Maseko was thrown into solitary confinement for three weeks.

Prisoner 579/2014 in Swaziland's Big Bend Prison might be in solitary, but he is not alone. International human rights groups have been on the case for some time. Maseko's wife Tenele and I spoke at the UN Human Rights Council event in Geneva last week about the targeting of human rights defenders by the Swazi and other governments. The U.S. mission there also raised Maseko's and Makhubu's cases publicly.

There is nothing high-tech or fancy about Maseko's defiance. He has not invented new forms of Internet activism or exposed government violations on YouTube. He is not a fashionable blogger or even a human rights Twitter celebrity (though #SwaziJustice tracks his case). He writes articles about "the arrogance of power in this beloved Kingdom." He writes letters citing Mahatma Gandhi. He is an old-fashioned example of a brave guy paying the price for standing up to a monarchy. He is a classic human rights defender.