Top post for key witness in Lesotho first lady murder trial

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A key witness in the high-profile murder case of Lipolelo Thabane, the former Prime Minister’s estranged wife, has landed a lucrative diplomatic job, leading to suspicions that her appointment is an attempt to appease or silence her.

The witness, Thato Sibolla, is due to testify against the former First Lady, ‘Maesaiah Thabane, who is accused of masterminding the assassination of her husband’s former wife.

‘Maesaiah is charged with Lipolelo’s murder and Sibolla’s attempted murder following an ambush on the vehicle they were traveling in together on the eve of former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s inauguration in 2017.

The ambush happened in Ha ‘Masana, a stones-throw away from Lipolelo’s home. Sibolla survived the ordeal but was forced to flee to South Africa in 2019 in fear of her life after the police launched an investigation against ‘Maesaiah. At the time, Sibolla was administration officer at the Ministry of Justice. She has since been under Amnesty International protection.

Sibolla neither denied nor confirmed her political appointment. “I am a civil servant from [the] Ministry of Justice. Kindly refer questions to my principals. I am not at liberty to respond to media about my work, unless by authority from my PS [Principal Secretary],” she said via Facebook Messenger in response to questions from MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism.

In response to questions as to whether political influence led to her diplomatic posting, Sibolla, said: “People are entitled to their respective opinion. I am not going to let myself go there”.

Asked whether she will still testify against ‘Maesaiah following her appointment, Sibolla said: “I am bound by law to testify and I am a law-abiding citizen”.

‘Maesaiah is said to be back and enjoying influence at the helm of the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) after Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro and the pro-Thabane faction patched up their differences.

The reconciliation of the two factions led to the exit from the ABC of senior politicians, Minister of Agriculture Tefo Mapesela and Minister of Justice Professor Nqosa Mahao last month.

This shake-up appears to have created the space for ‘Maesaiah to resume a foothold in the ABC with Mapesela and Mahao saying the new peace pact between Majoro and the pro-Thabane faction is tantamount to handing control of the party to ‘Maesaiah.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Paseka Mokete, the officer leading the investigation into ‘Maesaiah, told MNN that they have completed their investigation and “the case has been handed to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)”.

“The office of the DPP has said it is studying the case and they are the ones who know when they would be ready to take the case to court,” he added, emphasising the police have a case against the suspects.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Hlalefang Motinyane did not respond to MNN’s WhatsApp questions on the current status of the case. Motinyane was appointed DPP by Thabane’s administration three months after he was elected in 2017.

Earlier last year, Mokete accused Motinyane of shielding ‘Maesaiah and her husband Thabane from prosecution after failing to oppose ‘Maesaiah’s bail application, which succeeded unopposed.

According to a Lesotho Times report, Mokete said Motinyane should have opposed the bail as she “is the police’s legal representative” in the criminal proceedings against ‘Maesaiah.

“However, to the police’s utter dismay, Motinyane not only failed to oppose the bail but went on to challenge a subsequent Court of Appeal application by Sibolla and Thabane’s own grandson, Thomas Thabane Jr to reverse the bail,” Mokete was quoted as saying.

According to court documents filed by Police Commissioner, Holomo Molibeli, phone records allegedly link former Prime Minister Thabane to the murder scene. “Investigations reveal that there was a telephonic communication at the scene of the crime … with another cell phone. The cell phone number belongs to you [Prime Minister Thabane],” Molibeli noted in the court papers.

‘Maesaiah has distanced herself from Sibolla’s appointment saying, “just a mention of her name leaves a bitter taste in my mouth”.

When the MNN contacted her to comment, ‘Maesaiah laughed endlessly before saying: “I first saw this on social media two days ago and I was surprised.   I don’t know anything about these appointments as I am busy herding my ostriches.”

Ministry of Justice Principal Secretary Lebeko Sello told MNN in a separate interview that he was informed about Sibolla’s deployment to the diplomatic mission by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the appointing authority.

Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Machesetsa Mofomobe also confirmed Sibolla’s appointment saying she was fielded by the ABC as the diplomatic posts were awarded to political parties forming the coalition government.

The ABC spokesperson Montoeli Masoetsa said he was unaware of Sibolla’s appointment: “I am surprised because I don’t know any role played by the ABC in the deployment of diplomats”.

It is common practice in the government that politicians, their family members and loyalists are appointed to diplomatic missions. These posts are also used for political leverage. Among others, Sibolla is appointed alongside Thabane’s nephew, Selimo Thabane and former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s daughter, Thato Mosisili respectively as Consul General to Klerksdorp and Counsellor to Rome.

Sibolla refused to comment on the role played by the ABC in her appointment.

MNN has been reliably informed by a source who wished to remain anonymous that Sibolla has been in her new job since March this year. “What I have discovered is that Thato Sibolla has now been working for two months as a Vice Consul in Johannesburg,” said the source.

Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tanki Mothae said: “I would like to very kindly try to avoid discussing Thato Sibolla’s issue. She is [a] government employee and she deserves that privacy at least with this particular issue.”

Sources close to the matter said that the former premier Thabane’s grandson, Thomas Thabane Jnr, was supposed to be posted to Berlin, but was eventually removed from the list because ‘Maesaiah opposed his appointment saying people who wanted to see her imprisoned should not be employed. ‘Maesaiah denied saying this when MNN asked for her response.

Thabane Jnr said he was not aware of the deployments: “The demand for justice on the murder of ‘M’e Lipolelo still continues as I am awaiting proceedings to resume and the law to take its course such that the matter can be concluded. On my part such a demand for justice does not, was not and will not be influenced by any prospective employment nor economic activity on the part of the Government of Lesotho.”

Legal dispute

Meanwhile on May 4, 17 officers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led by the acting director in the ministry’s Directorate of Legal Affairs, ‘Mathapelo Kanono launched a legal battle asking the High Court to urgently intervene to stop an “illegal act” in the appointment of diplomatic staff to the country’s foreign missions.

In the court application, Kanono and her co-applicants fear appointments have been made to Lesotho’s foreign service in violation of public service law and its regulations.

She said the public service commission has ignored the “underlying principles of fairness, transparency, merit and equality in making the appointments of undisclosed persons to various foreign missions”.

Kanono and her co-applicants argue “the appointments smack of illegality and corruption motivated purely by political expediency given that the positions were not advertised in accordance with the public service legislation”.

She adds that the appointments were shrouded in secrecy.

Kanono said she and her co-applicants as career civil servants, who received training in diplomacy and diplomatic relations, expected recruitment would be transparent and conducted in line with the provisions of the law as had been the practice in the past prior to the country being governed by coalition governments.

The case is pending in court.

NB: This story was produced by the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism team.  Click here to see original story.