MASERU (Reuters) - Lesotho’s high court will rule on whether Prime Minister Thomas Thabane can claim immunity from a charge he murdered his wife prior to marrying his present spouse, a lower court decided on Monday, in a case gripping the tiny southern African kingdom.
Thabane, 80, appeared in court in the capital Maseru in a pre-trail hearing on Monday alongside his present wife Maesaiah.
He is suspected of involvement in the murder of his then wife Lipolelo, who was shot dead in June 2017 two days before he took office for a second stint as premier and two months before he married Maesaiah.
He and Lipolelo were going through divorce proceedings at the time.
Maesaiah, 42, has been charged with the murder, and police suspect her of ordering assassins to do the job.
Both deny involvement.
Crowds of supporters packed the magistrates’ court and gathered outside for Monday’s hearing. Thabane, wearing a blue-striped suit and a powder blue shirt, looked tense. Maesaiah sat beside him in a floral dress and bucket hat.
No charges were read out and his lawyer said the case should be referred to the high court to answer a question of possible immunity, which magistrate Phethise Motanyane granted.
If Thabane is allowed to plead immunity it would raise doubts over how willing he is to step down, further fanning the political crisis in the mountain territory of 2 million people.
Thabane has said he will resign at the end of July. The ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) party, however, wants him to step aside immediately, with chairman Samuel Rapapa ready to take over, the party spokesman told Reuters on Monday.
ABC spokesman Montoeli Masoetsa said by telephone that the party’s National Executive Council had agreed on Rapapa in discussions on Monday and delivered his name to parliament.
“There is already an effort to get him out,” he said. “We want him to leave as soon as possible.”
In theory, since the ABC’s governing coalition in parliament has a majority, and its allies also want Thabane out, it does not need to put the nomination to a vote. But it is unclear what would happen if he refuses to go.
The prime minister’s private secretary Thabo Thakalekoala told Reuters by telephone he might be willing to leave before July, if his party can agree on a successor.
“He is going to retire at the end of July or even before July, under the right conditions,” he said, elaborating that they would be met if he agreed with his suggested replacement and was satisfied that proper process is followed.
Lesotho, which is encircled by South Africa, has a history of coups and political instability that has often led its bigger neighbor to intervene and restore order.
Police had initially intended to charge Thabane on Friday, but he left the country for a medical appointment.
Reporting by Marafaele Mohloboli; Writing by and additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Johannesburg; Editing by Hugh Lawson