Pressure mounted on Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Thabane to step down Monday as he appeared in court over the murder of his estranged wife after failing to turn up for a hearing last week.
The latest twist in a saga that has gripped the southern African kingdom came after a weekend in which the 80-year-old premier was said to be receiving emergency medical care in South Africa.
The magistrates court in Maseru had been expected to formally read out charges against Thabane for allegedly acting in “common purpose” in the June 2017 killing of 58-year old Lipolelo Thabane, whom he was in the process of divorcing.
But after a brief sitting, the matter was deferred to the High Court and the prime minister was not formally charged.
No date has been give for the prime minister’s appearance at the High Court.
But the case has increased pressure on Thabane to step down.
The supreme decision-making executive committee of his All Basotho Convention (ABC) party has asked him to leave office “immediately” as it picked his possible replacement.
“We have asked the PM to step down while on the other hand we have submitted (to a party parliamentary caucus) the name of Mr Sam Rapapa to succeed him,” party’s spokesman Montoeli Masoetsa told AFP.
Rapapa is a lawmaker and the party’s chairman.
Citing advanced age, Thabane last week announced on national television that he would retire by July 31.
Thabane was accompanied to the magistrates court by his current wife Maesaiah Thabane, 42, whom he married two months after Lipolelo’s death and who is considered a co-conspirator in the murder case.
She has already been charged with murder and is out on bail.
Defence lawyer Qhalehang Letsika had argued that Thabane should not be charged as long as he remained a prime minister.
“My client cannot be prosecuted while in office but he is not above the law,” said Letsika, adding the beleaguered premier was “entitled to immunity” because of his status.
Wearing a navy-blue striped suit with a powder-blue shirt and flanked by his spouse, Thabane appeared nervous as the couple sat on one of the court benches.
During the hearing, the lawyer asked whether a sitting prime minister should be subject to criminal prosecution as this could mean that he may be held in custody.
“Whether a sitting prime minister can be criminally charged, I must admit at the outset that this is indeed a novel case in our country and whose determination we shall eagerly anticipate,” magistrate Phethise Motanyane said.
Thabane had initially been due in court on Friday for the preliminary appearance but was a no-show, prompting police to warn they could issue an arrest warrant.
His aide initially said Thabane had gone to neighbouring South Africa for “routine” health checks, but later his office said he was seeking “emergency” medical attention and would appear in court on his return.
On Saturday, police said Thabane’s sick note said that the premier would be “unfit” until February 27.
Lipolelo’s murder sent shockwaves through Lesotho — a tiny landlocked nation of 2.2 million with a history of political turmoil.
She was gunned down outside her home in Maseru just two days before her husband took office. The couple had been embroiled in a bitter divorce.
The accusations against the prime minister came after communications records from the scene of the murder included Thabane’s mobile phone number.
The main opposition party the Democratic Congress, on Friday filed in parliament a motion of no confidence in the prime minister.
If Thabane loses the motion, he could either step down or advise King Letsie III to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections.
On the streets of Maseru, the people of Lesotho also want him gone from office.
“He should be stripped of … his title and face all the charges and, like anyone else,” said Lynor Mahase.