Lawyers for Lesotho’s prime minister have told a court that he cannot be charged over the murder of his estranged wife because his position makes him immune from prosecution.
PM Thomas Thabane’s then-wife, Lipolelo Thabane, was shot dead in 2017.
The case has now been referred to the High Court. His current wife has already been charged with the murder.
Mr Thabane would be the first African leader to be charged with domestic murder while in office.
The case has shocked many in the small landlocked kingdom which is entirely surrounded by South Africa.
In Monday’s hearing, defence lawyer Qhalehang Letsika said: “My client cannot be prosecuted while in office but he is not above the law.”
The defence argued that the Constitutional Court should rule on Mr Thabane’s immunity while he remains in office. But the presiding magistrate referred the case to the High Court, which is a lower court.
Mr Thabane, 80, missed a court appearance last week because he went to South Africa for medical treatment.
He rejected reports that he had fled the country. In January, his wife Maesaiah Thabane also went to South Africa after police issued a warrant of arrest against her.
Mr Thabane has said he would step down in July, resisting pressure from his own party to leave office immediately.
Thabane still in charge – for now
Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy and while the constitution is explicit that the king cannot be charged with a crime, it is unclear on the fate of the prime minister.
It has been reported that Mr Thabane wants to seek immunity for himself and his current wife Maesaiah Thabane who has already been charged with Lipolelo Thabane’s murder but it is not clear what that would mean for the murder case.
Prosecutors argue that everyone is equal before the law and Mr Thabane should be no exception.
The country’s top legal minds – a full bench of judges in the High Court and those at the Constitutional Court – will need to decipher what the law allows. What is not in doubt is that this case will test Lesotho’s laws and the independence of the judiciary.
Mr Thabane has been embarrassed and weakened politically – some within his All Basotho Convention (ABC) want him to leave office immediately to face this murder debacle on his own.
But he is presumed innocent until proven guilty and until the matter gets finalised, he will continue running the country, at least until his party can agree on a successor.
How did the murder take place?
Lipolelo Thabane was gunned down at close range on the side of a dirt road while returning to her home in a village near the capital, Maseru.
She was involved in bitter divorce proceedings with Mr Thabane when she was killed.
At the time, the prime minister was living with Maesaiah, who is now 42, as if she were his wife.
But Lipolelo had already won a separate legal battle to be recognised as First Lady, rather than Maesaiah.
Maesaiah accompanied Mr Thabane to his inauguration, following his estranged wife’s death.
Two months later she and Mr Thabane got married in a Roman Catholic ceremony.
Maesaiah was charged with her rival’s murder on 5 February, and is out on bail of about $67 (£52).
She has also been charged with the attempted murder of a family friend Thato Sibolla, who was with Lipolelo at the time of the shooting and is expected to be a key witness in the murder case.
Maesaiah has not yet been asked to enter a plea.