JOHANNESBURG – JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Norway pledged Wednesday to work for democracy in Africa's last absolute monarchy — tiny Swaziland — while comparing the initiative to its role in the fight against apartheid in neighboring South Africa.
Swazi King Mswati III is accused of repressing human rights and harassing and jailing pro-democracy activists. Pro-democracy activists say a monarchy is ill-equipped to combat the poverty and AIDS that trouble the kingdom of 1 million wedged between South Africa and Mozambique.
At a Norwegian-sponsored meeting held in South Africa Wednesday and featuring diplomats and Swazi pro-democracy groups, Norwegian Ambassador Tor Christian Hildan said his government was not alone in noting "with growing concern the difficult situation regarding human rights, freedom of speech" in Swaziland.
The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions co-sponsored Wednesday's meeting. Political parties are banned in Swaziland, so trade unions there play an important political role and have reached out to their counterparts around the world.
Representatives from the international Red Cross and envoys of the Netherlands and European Union also attended the forum. Amadou Traore, the top EU diplomat in Swaziland, assured the audience "Swaziland is very much on the EU radar."
He said in June, the EU condemned the death in police custody of a young man arrested at a May Day rally, reportedly for wearing a T-shirt with the logo of Swaziland's People's United Democratic Movement. Swazi authorities say the man hanged himself. The EU demanded an official inquest and the government promised a report at the end of June, EU envoy Traore said.
"We are still waiting," he said.
Bheki Dlamini, the spokesman for King Mswati, referred questions to Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini. The prime minister's office did not immediately comment Wednesday. In the Swazi media last week, when Norway announced it planned to hold the forum, a top Swazi foreign ministry official accused the Nordic country of "poking its nose in the affairs of the country."
Swazi pro-democracy activist Skhumbuzo Phakathi said Mswati was "using legal instruments to suppress human rights and freedom." At Wednesday's meeting, he called on Norway to continue raising international awareness.
"Talk to your neighbors, talk to your allies, and say, 'There is a crisis in Swaziland.'"
Another activist, Vincent Ncongwane, went further, calling for "smart sanctions" against key government figures to force them to open a dialogue with the opposition.
Norwegian Ambassador Hildan, comparing the initiative in Swaziland to work that Norway undertook in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, said it was too early to consider such a step against a government his country saw as friendly. He said Norway would instead encourage "constructive dialogue" and talk to both the government and the opposition.
"We do take the liberty to express concern because ... we care," Hildan said. "A true friend has the courage to raise the more challenging questions."
Mswati has ruled for nearly a quarter century, since the death of his father, King Sobhuza II. While Sobhuza was revered as a benevolent traditional leader, his son has been accused of being an autocrat.
Swaziland has a National Assembly that is subservient to the king. Political parties have been outlawed in Swaziland since 1973, at a time when many other African country's were still under colonial rule.
Swazi authorities have banned political meetings. Security agents in the kingdom — from police to game park guards — have been accused of killing suspects with impunity.
Last year, a Swazi court acquitted an anti-monarchist who was jailed for a year while awaiting trial under sweeping anti-terror laws passed in 2008.
Currently, two members of a banned opposition group are jailed on charges of being behind a spate of small bomb attacks. Critics accuse Swazi police of staging the bombings to discredit Mswati's opponents.