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Lesotho PM, spy boss under fire for illegal surveillance

Lesotho PM, spy boss under fire for illegal surveillance

…intelligence operative alleges shocking abuse of spy agency to fight political battles against the opposition,

…sues boss, PM for R5 million damages for defamation, rights violations

 Herbert Moyo

PRIME Minister Sam Matekane and spy boss, Pheello Ralenkoane’s recent moves to seize the mobile phones of a former cabinet minister and an intelligence officer, ostensibly to aid a National Security Service (NSS) investigation into the murder of a popular radio presenter, have spectacularly backfired and opened up an unexpected can of worms for them.

This after their targets filed separate court applications containing explosive claims about the abuse of the intelligence agency by the ruling elite to conduct illegal surveillance on perceived political opponents.

This publication obtained court papers filed in Lesotho’s Constitutional Court by former minister and current opposition leader, Machesetsa Mofomobe, and fellow opposition politician, Moeketsi Shale.

Their court papers offer a rare glimpse into the murky world of the surveillance operations of Lesotho’s shadowy and feared spy agency.

While Messrs Mofomobe and Shale successfully challenged moves to confiscate their mobile phones, an intelligence officer whose phones had earlier been confiscated by her superiors is still enduring hell. The spy agent, Ithabeleng Pitso, says she “caved into threats of harassment and physical harm” from her superiors and handed over her phones to them.

Ms Pitso has since followed Messrs Mofomobe and Shale’s example by taking the premier and the spy chief to the Constitutional Court. The matter is pending. In her court papers also obtained by this publication this week, she is suing for the return of her phones, R5 million damages for rights violations and an order compelling the intelligence agency to delete all the private communications, pictures, and any other information copied from her phones. She is also demanding a public apology and retraction of the respondents’ claims that they found evidence in her phones showing that she was in an adulterous relationship with Mr Mofomobe and she was also passing on to him official intelligence obtained in the course of her work.

Mr Mofomobe, who leads the opposition Basotho National Party (BNP), charges that allegations that he had a hand in the brutal murder of popular radio host, Ralikonelo Joki, who was gunned down two months ago, are merely a smokescreen by Messrs Matekane and Ralenkoane to cover up their real motive to fix him for being “a thorn in the government’s side”. He alleges that he is being victimised for consistently using various platforms to expose “endemic corruption” in Mr Matekane’s fledgling government which assumed the reins in the aftermath of the October 2022 elections.

In her separate court action which is supported by Mr Mofomobe, Ms Pitso has accused her spy boss of abusing the intelligence agency to fight personal political battles against opposition figures like the former- battles which she says have nothing to do with the NSS’ mandate of ensuring peace and security in Lesotho.

The allegations contained in the Mofomobe-Shale and Pitso court papers make for a riveting Hollywood-style high-action drama with generous servings of sexual sleaze, rogue politicians, violence, and suppression of individual rights and liberties.

While their claims about being targeted for political ends have not been proved, the court judgement vindicates their arguments concerning the abuse of the prime minister’s powers on intelligence issues and rights violations as a result of that abuse.

Murder most foul

The Mofomobe-Shale court application and the current Pitso case against Mr Matekane and the NSS boss have their genesis in the callous murder of Mr Joki, a popular radio talk show host and presenter who was gunned down in cold blood on the night of 14 May this year in the capital, Maseru.

According to police reports, Mr Joki, who was famous for reporting on corruption and organised crime, was shot dead by unknown assailants outside his workplace shortly after knocking off.

The incident sparked local and international outrage. There were widespread calls for the police and government to find his killers whose actions had cemented Lesotho’s reputation as Africa’s murder capital and sixth most homicidal nation in the world according to World Population Review statistics.

At that point, the NSS inexplicably waded into the matter which is ordinarily under the purview of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) to investigate. Armed with a search warrant signed by the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Limpho Tau, NSS officers visited Mr Mofomobe’s home to seize his mobile phones ostensibly to aid investigations into Mr Joki’s murder. Mr Tau had signed the warrant on behalf of Prime Minister Matekane who doubles up as Defence and Security Minister. However, Mr Mofomobe resisted NSS officers’ attempts and rushed to the Constitutional Court. The spooks went on to seize the mobile phones of fellow opposition Democratic Congress official, Moeketsi Shale, who subsequently approached the court to rein in Messrs Matekane and Ralenkoane.

Mr Ralenkoane alleged that Messrs Mofomobe and Shale were not only involved in Mr Joki’s murder but also illegally obtained confidential NSS information.

Mr Mofomobe was further accused of money laundering. The duo challenged Mr Ralenkoane’s directive to seize their phones in court. Delivering judgement in the consolidated Mofomobe and Shale case on 23 June, Chief Justice Sakoane Sakoane ruled that Section 26 (2) of the National Security Service Act which the spy chief and premier had relied upon to seize the duo’s phones was unconstitutional as it “lacks the necessary safeguards to provide adequate and effective guarantees against arbitrariness and the risk of abuse” of power by Mr Matekane.

Justice Sakoane further said the warrant to seize and extract information from Messrs Mofomobe and Shale’s mobile phones violates their rights to privacy and freedom from arbitrary seizure of property.

The top judge also ruled that the NSS had no business usurping the powers of the police to investigate crimes.

The Pitso case

Buoyed by the favourable Mofomobe-Shale judgement, NSS officer Pitso subsequently approached the courts over the seizure of her own phones which had occurred earlier in May. She alleges that the NSS had no case against her and only attempted to build one after confiscating her phones and copying information from them. She says she was then accused of funneling sensitive information to Mr Mofomobe. Her case is yet to be heard.

In her court papers, Ms Pitso alleges she had already been forced to surrender her work and personal mobile phones by the time judgement was handed down in the Mofomobe-Shale case two months ago.

She alleges that in the scope of her work, she had managed to obtain some undisclosed information from Mr Mofomobe which had then resulted in her bosses’ decision to confiscate her mobile phones to search for anything that could help them build a case against the opposition leader.

Her court papers offer fascinating albeit scary insights into the modus operandi of the dreaded secretive intelligence agency.  She says fellow NSS officials accosted her at work and threatened her with violence to force her to surrender her personal and work-issued mobile phones.

“On 23 February 2023, I and my colleagues were in the open source room where ordinary information is brought, discussed and analysed,” Ms Pitso states in her court papers.

“Suddenly two infuriated women from the NSS Security Section namely: Ms Lebusa and another came in and shut all the doors and windows of the whole NSSheadquarters building. They then ruthlessly escorted me upstairs locking my colleagues in the open source room. Upstairs, I was served with a warrant of arrest for my mobile phones … I tried to resist the arrest of my phones but I was threatened with violence and forced to surrender my phones and their passwords.

“I finally complied under immense duress to protect my own personal security and life. I have previously been viciously assaulted and grievously injured by the NSSofficials. Following the arrest and search of my phones I was charged with having given confidential NSS information to the BNP leader,” Ms Pitso further states.

Rights violations

In a striking blow to rights to privacy, dignity and free expression, she says the NSS copied all information and communications from her phone. That information subsequently found its way into social media thus tarnishing her reputation, she argues.

She says to this day the NSS has refused to return her mobile phones, reinstate her to her job (from which she was fired in May), and erase the information it obtained from her through illegal means.

“The Respondents subjected me to inhuman and degrading treatment, and thereby violating my rights to dignity and good name protected under the Constitution.

“The respondents’ conduct of having driven me from amongst my colleagues like a criminal, having untrammeled access to my personal conversations and information, having alleged that I am engaged in an extramarital relationship with a married man while I am an unmarried Mosotho girl violated my dignity,” Ms Pitso states in her court papers.

‘NSS abused by politicians’

According to her, Mr Ralenkoane’s actions have nothing to do with the execution of the NSS’ mandate of ensuring national security.

Rather, the spy boss is abusing the NSS to fight his personal battles with Mr Mofomobe, she claims. Incidentally, Mr Ralenkoane is a career spy with over 35 years’ experience. He has dabbled in party politics as recently as June 2017 when he contested and lost the parliamentary elections under the banner of the BNP which is now led by Mr Mofomobe.  He was nonetheless appointed to the NSS director general’s post in July 2017 by then Prime Minister Thomas Thabane who headed a four-party coalition that included the BNP.

Mr Ralenkoane’s BNP past has apparently not stopped him from going after Mr Mofomobe.

Narrating the genesis of her troubles, Ms Pitso says, “My work is essentially to spy and gather information from government departments, parastatals, legal entities, individuals and elsewhere and to give the same information to my authorities and colleagues and to analyse it for the national security purposes.

“One of the persons I was able to obtain information from was…Mr Mofomobe. I have never given any classified, confidential and/or highly confidential information and/or any NSS information to him. On the other hand, I have since learned that there is a political battle between NSS Director General Mr Pheello Ralenkoane and the BNP leader (Mofomobe) for reasons unknown to me.

“The possible and inferential reasoning is that the BNP leader presents a tough time and active opposition against the government led by the Revolution For Prosperity (RFP). As a result, the Honourable Prime Minister of Lesotho Mr Matekane…working in common purpose with the NSS Director General Mr Pheello Ralenkoane had conspired to clamp Mr Mofomobe’s political wings. The function of NSS is to protect the National Security and not to undermine any person or political party,” Ms Pitso states in her court papers.

She therefore wants the courts to order the respondents to return her phones, delete all the information copied from them, and a public apology for defamation. Additionally, she is seeking R5 million damages for defamation.

In the preceding Mofomobe-Shale court case, Mr Mofomobe had made similar allegations that Messrs Matekane and Ralenkoane were abusing the NSS to fix him for his outspoken criticism of the government for its failure to deal with alleged multi-million rand corruption by members of Mr Matekane’s RFP party.

He alleges he is being punished for “devoting resources to expose the machinations of cabinet ministers and bureaucrats who use state resources to loot on a large scale”.

This publication has established that Mr Mofomobe is now demanding R5 million as well for defamation. He has confirmed that his lawyer has written a letter of demand to the premier and the spy chief.

The entire saga has inadvertently exposed the abuse of the intelligence agency to fight political scores. It also reveals the problematic issue of Lesotho’s security agencies’ encroaching onto the constitutional mandate of each other- in this case, the NSS venturing into the realm of police work allegedly to settle political scores.

Herbert Moyo is a journalist researching digital surveillance, with support from the Media Policy and Democracy Project run by the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Communication and Media.