Lesotho soldiers pursuing cross-border thieves due in SA court without legal aid

Two Lesotho soldiers were arrested a month ago, and their defence force said they had had little assistance to release the pair who were pursuing an alleged cross-border theft.

LDF soldiers Rorisang Moepi and Dumile Tsoanyane chased alleged livestock thieves who crossed the border into South Africa. Picture:  Wikipedia.

JOHANNESBURG - Two Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldiers, who pursued alleged livestock thieves into South Africa on 19 July and were arrested after exchanging fire with their South African National Defence Force (SANDF) counterparts, will apply for bail on 19 August. But they don’t have a lawyer, and their superiors don’t know how to get them released.

LDF soldiers Rorisang Moepi and Dumile Tsoanyane were on patrol in Qacha’s Nek, on the Lesotho side of the border between South Africa and the mountain kingdom, when residents reported that their livestock had been stolen. They chased the thieves until they crossed the border into Matatiele, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

It is common for areas and towns between the two countries to have no river or fence marking the border, and on a daily basis residents cross from one side to the other on social and business visits, or, as in this, case to steal livestock.

The SANDF responded, apparently in defence of the alleged thieves who were being chased, and the two sides exchanged gunfire until Moepi and Tsoanyane were overpowered and arrested.

LDF spokesperson Colonel Mashili told Eyewitness News on Monday that after negotiations and agreement with the SANDF that the arrest was a misunderstanding, South Africa promised to facilitate the release of the soldiers the same week and undertook to transport them to the Qacha’s Nek border. But the soldiers never arrived.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) of South Africa says the two have been charged with stock theft, illegal immigration, robbery with aggravating circumstances, possession of unlicensed firearms and ammunition, and contravention of the Disaster Management Act that primarily restricts movement into South Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

They appeared in the Maluti Court in Matatiele.

The NPA’s Sipho Ngwema confirmed that the two were remanded in custody and would apply for bail on 19 August , but it’s not clear why it took so long for the bail application.

Mashili said the SANDF agreed again to facilitate their release on 7 August, and an aircraft was sent from Lesotho to Matatiele on that day, but the Maluti Court first said the prosecutor was unavailable, and then said the magistrate was unavailable.

The two suspects were represented by Legal Aid for their first court appearance because the LDF didn’t have permission to cross the border into South Africa to appoint a lawyer. Mashili said the LDF did all it could to get the two released, but it was limited by COVID-19 travel restrictions, as well as the fact that they were now on foreign soil.

Legal Aid has now said it would no longer represent the pair because it had its own backlog of cases.

Mashili said the LDF was helpless as it had been sent from pillar to post and didn’t want to encroach on another country, until it was given a new date to see the soldiers on Monday.

Officials of the army and their families have travelled to Matatiele to see them, but it’s still not clear why they were not released as the SANDF had promised, and who would represent them at the bail application on Wednesday.

Mashili said it’s puzzling that the SANDF hadn’t assisted them, because this was not the first time that soldiers from either side found themselves beyond their territory.

“Many times SANDF soldiers cross the border into Lesotho and we don’t arrest them. Last month they crossed into Mokhotlong in pursuit of stolen livestock, and we helped them to find the livestock that was taken from South Africa and they returned with it, but we didn’t arrest them. We cooperate everyday so I don’t understand why our soldiers are not released,” said Mashili.

Meanwhile, SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini said the soldiers were handed over to police who officially arrested them to be charged. Once they are charged, the SANDF can no longer be held responsible for their release.

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