Botswana drops case against British journalist

The trial of Caitlin Davies is cancelled, but she wanted her day in court, writes Clare Garner

CAITLIN DAVIES, the elder daughter of the celebrated journalist Hunter Davies, was expecting a long trial with a possible two-year prison sentence at the end of it. Instead, the case against her was dramatically dropped on the first day of the proceedings.

The Attorney General of Botswana unexpectedly intervened and yesterday decreed that the case be thrown out because of lack of sufficient evidence. Ms Davies, 34, had been charged with publishing "a false report ... which was likely to cause fear and alarm to the public" during her editorship of the Okavango Observer, a local newspaper in Botswana, where she has lived for the past eight years.

The dismissal of the case came as a great relief to her family. Yesterday was her mother Margaret's 60th birthday. "There ouldn't be a better birthday present," said Mr Davies, who last week wrote about the impending case in The Independent.

He added that in some ways his daughter was disappointed that the case had been dropped. "There was part of her that wanted to go through with it and hear the whole case in open court. She didn't want to go to prison, but she would have liked to hear what the evidence was. Now she'll never know."

The offending article featured in her first issue as editor of the Okavango Observer, which subsequently closed due to financial difficulties. On 29 September 1995, she ran a front-page story about a gang of youths terrorising Maun, thehome village of her husband, Ronald Ridge. She had asked a reporter to get the reaction of the police to the story, but the local station commander could neither confirm nor deny the incidents, as nothing had been reported to the police.

On 19 January 1996, a CID officer arrested Ms Davies, saying that the article had breached Section 59 of the Penal Code, which apparently had never been invoked before. The case went quiet for about a year and everyone presumed it had been dropped. Then, in December 1997, Ms Davies was summoned to court and the trial was set for 25 May 1998.

No one understands why the case was resurrected, although newspapers in Botswana and South Africa which took up her cause suggested in leaders that the real problem was that Ms Davies had gone on to produce a series of articles drawing attention to the government's unpopular removal of indigenous bushmen from the Kalahari. Mr Ridge maintains that the government could not cope with someone as young as his wife "embarrassing them in front of the world".

Ms Davies faxed the statement from the Attorney General to her parents as soon as she heard the news yesterday afternoon. It read: "By Virtue of the powers vested in me by section 51(3)(c) of the Constitution of the Republic of Botswana and sections 10 and 11 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act. I, Phandu Tombola Chaha Skelemani, Attorney General of Botswana, having read the statements in the criminal docket CR NO 91/12/95 from Maun and being satisfied that there is not sufficient evidence to prosecute, do hereby stop and discontinue all criminal proceedings against Caitlin Davies ..." The statement is dated 8 May 1998.

While Mrs Davies was fairly confident that her daughter would get off, Mr Davies was less sure. "I thought there could be something we don't understand," he said. "Although the law is based on British law, some parts are slightly different."

On a visit to Botswana earlier this month Mr Davies had met his daughter's lawyer, who had tried to reassure him. "He said: `I'm sure you've brought her up to tell the truth so there's nothing to worry about'," Mr Davies said yesterday. "I thought he was just being hopeful."

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