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Journalist arrested on treason charges declares hunger strike pending trial

(MISA/IFEX) - On 22 June 2007, freelance journalist and Regional Chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Thabo Thakalekoala was arrested by Lesotho mounted police officers shortly after completing his morning "Rise and Shine" radio broadcast on Harvest FM radio. The mounted police are a division of the criminal investigation department (CID).

Thakalekoala's arrest follows his reading on the air of an open letter to the Commissioner of Police which argued for the arrest of the Prime Minister, his entire Cabinet and Principal Secretaries on corruption charges. He was given the letter by members of the Lesotho Defence Force.

CID officials took Thakalekoala into custody and demanded that he reveal the names of the people who gave him the letter. When MISA Lesotho visited him just after the lunch hour on 22 June, he refused to disclose his sources, saying "I am not obliged to reveal my sources as a journalist."

Thakalekoala has been charged with treason.

In the evening of 23 June, Thakalekoala began a hunger strike to try and persuade the government to release him or speed up his treason trial. The journalist told colleagues who visited him in his in Maseru police cell on 24 June that he would not eat or drink until he was either released or his case brought to court. He had earlier told colleagues that he feared for his life in police cells.

The media community in Lesotho has expressed concern over the charge, calling it "overkill". Thabo Motlamelle, deputy chairperson of MISA Lesotho, said even the way the charge was laid was suspicious, because police picked up Thakalekoala on the morning of the 22nd, but only charged him in the evening when they knew no court would be open to entertain the hearing.

"I do not think the government is serious about this charge because they cannot prove it. They have only proffered it so they can keep Thakalekoala out of circulation for some time and at a later stage, say, a few months down the line when they realise they cannot prosecute it successfully, they will withdraw the charge and release him," he said.

The Chief Information Officer in Cabinet, Nthabeleng Sefako, agreed. Sefako said she felt that although Thakalekoala had been "irresponsible in his reporting" in recent months, a charge of treason was inappropriate to address the government's grievances.

Thakalekoala's case is expected to be heard by the High Court of Lesotho on 25 June.

MISA Lesotho is currently meeting with Thakalekoala's family to discuss possible ways to support the journalist.

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