The report (see below) by Lesotho's ombud, advocate Tlotliso Polaki, released this week, was headed, ‘No justification for the unjustifiable’.

In the report, she found the rights of prisoners held in Maseru's central correction institution were seriously violated by officers and staff on December 22, 2023 during a massive prison-wide search.

Almost all of the inmates had been beaten, injured and tortured for no good cause. One prisoner, who had escaped the day before, was beaten to death after he was found and brought back to the prison. Another prisoner, in prison for a month awaiting trial for malicious damage to property, must now spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair after his back was broken in the prison-wide attacks. The man, Tlotliso Bereng, 38, is an IT systems engineer with his own consultancy. The 'recruits' beat him so badly that they tore his bladder and dislocated his spinal cord. 'He will never walk again and has excruciating pain in his back.' 

The ombud made a number of significant recommendations including disciplinary hearings and prosecution of the correctional services employees who carried out the assaults. She also made clear that compensation would have to be paid to the family of the prisoner who was killed and to Bereng, the man who has been left permanently disabled.

Polaki slammed the prison authorities for not allowing most of the injured prisoners access to medical treatment after the attacks, and for refusing to allow visits by family and legal representatives in the aftermath.

In her view, the visits were refused in order to allow the visible wounds on the prisoners’ bodies to heal before they were seen by ‘outside’ people. Some family members were so alarmed by the rumours they heard of what had happened in the prison that they asked the high court to issue a habeus corpus order.

The ombud further underlined the inadequate resources provided to correctional services. She said they worked under very difficult conditions. For example, some security cameras aren’t working despite being reported on several occasions, there aren’t the resources even to make reports on incidents that take place in the prison, the staff are not paid an adequate salary and other conditions of service are not satisfactory.

During her inspection, details of which are included in the 70-page report, Polaki discovered that staff were still operating in terms of colonial era regulations. She viewed footage of those videos that were working and conducted extensive interviews with prisoners and with staff, during which senior officers admitted that things had got out of control on December 22. However, she strongly criticised the senior officers because none of then had taken the initiative to call off the attacks and the blatant torture of inmates.

The events were sparked by the escape of several prisoners on December 21. Despite the escape, a pre-planned but unannounced search of all the inmates and their cells for contraband, went ahead the following day. The search was carried out by scores of ‘recruits’, employees who had worked for the prison service for years, but who hadn’t finally completed their training. One of the escaped prisoners was found, but after he was brought back, appears to have been beaten to death.

The ombud found that the ‘recruits’, possibly fired up by the escape, acted with deliberate provocation to ‘start a fight’ with the prisoners, and the senior officers did not stop them. She found there was a culture of silence among the senior officers and that they did not tell her the whole story.

Her conclusion was that there had been a ‘well-orchestrated plan’ to ‘torture and ill-treat inmates’. Although the main targets of the 'rescruits' seem to have been members of the Lesotho Defence Force, in prison awaiting trial, the attacks ‘spilled over’ to involve most of the rest of the prisoners as well.