Police brutality a continuing crisis, COVID-19 related protests documented

Allegations of police abuse and torture, which have been continuously documented by rights groups such as Amnesty International, continued to be reported this year amid COVID 19 restrictions.

In the first week of April 2020, the Lesotho government declared a 21-day national lockdown due to COVID-19, and on 6th April, the first day of the lockdown, images emerged on social media showing brutality by security forces while enforcing the lockdown restrictions.

Videos which went viral showed police and soldiers making citizens roll on the ground and beating them up. The police said they would take action against officers who violate rights while enforcing the restrictions.

In response to the allegations of police brutality, on April 18th 2020, Prime Minister Tom Thabane announced that he had deployed the army onto the streets to "restore peace and order, ” accusing some law enforcement officials of infringing on democracy. This was a day after the constitutional court stopped Prime Minister Tom Thabane from suspending the police commissioner.

Peaceful Assembly

As COVID-19 and its economic effects began to be felt by workers and small business people, several strikes and protests by different groups were reported.

Health professionals go on strike over COVID-19 demands

On 6th April 2020, nurses, doctors and laboratory technicians in the country announced that they would be going on strike to demand risk allowances and protest the lack of protective gear in hospitals amid reports of suspected COVID-19 cases. According to representatives from their respective associations which had come together under one coalition to raise their issues, the groups had raised their grievances with the government but were yet to receive a response.

The strike was called off after a two-day meeting with the Health Minister, in which the government agreed to pay a risk allowance of 30 percent of their monthly gross salary to each health professional.

Two and a half months later however, the health professionals embarked on another strike on 13th July to protest the government’s failure to address their demands. The strike proceeded despite threats from the Health Minister, who warned of sanctions, calling it an illegal action. The action lasted two weeks and ended after several meetings, where the government committed to pay monthly allowances ranging from M2000 to M3500 (USD 122-213) to each health professional and to provide them with protective gear.

After continued failure by government to honour its commitments, health workers announced in mid-September 2020 that they would down tools for a third time if their demands were not met.

Protests held to demand COVID-19 relief funds

In separate developments, garment workers in the country went on strike on 17th June 2020 to demand unpaid wages which the government had committed to pay during the COVID-19 lockdown period. The strike lasted one day, following which the government promised to honour the promise it had made in April 2020 after negotiations with their unions, to pay three months’ salary to the workers during the COVID-19 lockdown. Reports indicated that authorities deployed special forces in the capital, Maseru, who beat, arrested and used rubber bullets against some of the workers.

In a similar incident, on 25th August 2020, hundreds of city vendors staged a protest in the capital’s central business district to demand the release of delayed COVID-19 relief funds which the government had committed to disburse as part of economic measures to cushion small businesses during the lockdown. The protest, for which the police refused to issue a permit, was dispersed by police who lobbed tear gas and fired rubber bullets, while several protesters were arrested for blocking roads with boulders and burning car tyres. Responding to queries about the protesters’ demands, the Ministry of Trade and Industry spokesperson, Lihaelo Nkaota, confirmed that the ministry had just received the funds and was working on transferring the funds to the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project (PSCEDP), which would then disburse the funds to affected groups.