Hundreds of people, including foreign diplomats, paid tribute Saturday to a human rights lawyer who was shot dead in Eswatini, sparking alarm over violence in Africa's last absolute monarchy.
Thulani Maseko was a fierce critic of authorities in the tiny landlocked nation.
"Maseko was shot by unknown gunmen at his home in Luyengo, Mbabane on January 21. Although the motive behind his killing remains unclear, Amnesty International has reason to believe that he was attacked in relation to his work as a human rights defender. Maseko has previously been targeted by the state for demanding justice and criticizing the country’s judiciary," Amnesty International earlier said in a statement.
According to the international NGO, on the evening of January 21, Maseko was shot through the window of his home by unknown gunmen at close range. He was reportedly shot twice. A local newspaper also reported that two police officers had staked out his house before he was killed. Allegedly, those police officers were same ones who attended the crime scene after Maseko was shot.
“The cold-blooded unlawful killing of Thulani Maseko offers a chilling reminder that human rights defenders, especially those at the forefront of calling for political reform in Eswatini, are not safe. If they are not being persecuted, harassed or intimidated by the state, they are at risk of losing their lives,”
“Maseko’s family deserves justice; his killers must be brought to trial," the statement said.
Hours before his murder, King Mswati III warned activists who defy him not to "shed tears" about "mercenaries killing them."
Diplomatic envoys from the US, European Union, the United Kingdom and the United Nations attended a sombre memorial service on the outskirts of the commercial capital, Manzini.
The UN representative George Wachira said Maseko's killing was a "loss not only to Eswatini but to the world and humanity. We cannot avoid bitterness because Thulani didn't deserve to die in this manner".
"His death shall not be in vain. Thulani was at the core of that theory that through dialogue this country can be fixed," he told mourners.
Maseko, who died aged 52, had spent most of his life fighting state repression and representing opposition activists in court.
In 2014, he was jailed for contempt of court over articles critical of the government and judiciary, but he was acquitted on appeal and released a year later.
At the time of his death, Maseko led a broad coalition of political and civic rights and religious groups created in November 2021 to foster dialogue with the king and seek a way out of the political crisis in the country of 1.2 million people.
Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, has long cracked down on dissent, with political parties banned since 1973.
At least 37 people were killed during weeks of anti-monarchy protests in June 2021.
Maseko's killing drew widespread international outrage and calls for an impartial probe into the killing, and the prosecution of the culprits.
(With inputs from AFP)