Hundreds of mourners gathered on Saturday in the tiny kingdom of Eswatini to pay tribute to an internationally renowned human rights lawyer brazenly shot dead in front of his wife and two children at their home a week ago, after years of agitating for the end of Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
The killing of the lawyer, Thulani Maseko, drew widespread condemnation, including from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and political activists in Eswatini, a landlocked nation in southern Africa formerly known as Swaziland.
While rumors about who killed Mr. Maseko, 52, have run rampant, the government has forcefully denied accusations that it was the work of the security forces of King Mswati III, who has ruled the country for more than three and a half decades. The king appoints the prime minister and a large portion of lawmakers, and has the power to dissolve Parliament. The lavish lifestyle he and his family lead has angered many of his subjects, who live in severe poverty.
After Eswatini was convulsed by the worst riots in its post-colonial history a year and a half ago, the country has remained on edge as activists have advocated democratic reforms, and as about a dozen police officers or soldiers have been killed. Protests and work strikes occur sporadically, and they are sometimes quelled with violence by the police and military.
The government’s denials of involvement in Mr. Maseko’s killing did little to temper the venom directed toward the monarchy during Saturday’s memorial service, which was expected to be followed early Sunday morning by Mr. Maseko’s funeral and burial.
Activists from various political parties, which are not allowed to stand for election, waved flags, stomped their feet and chanted in what was part tribute, part political rally. Behind a stage adorned with pictures of Mr. Maseko hung a red, yellow and green banner of the People’s United Democratic Movement, or Pudemo, a political party that the government has designated a terrorist organization.
Before a litany of speakers — including foreign diplomats and family members — took the stage, nearly everyone at the gathering stood and chanted with gospel-like grace.
“Even if they beat us, we are marching on,” they sang. “Even if they shoot us, we are marching on. Even if they kill us, we are marching on.”
Mr. Maseko’s widow, Tanele Maseko, described the horror of sitting in their living room with her husband and their sons, ages 10 and 6, on a recent Saturday evening when he was shot.
“That night felt like my chest had been opened and my heart ripped apart,” she said, speaking with her face covered by a black veil.
She explained that Mr. Maseko had refused to go into exile like other pro-democracy leaders, once telling her, “If they want me, they know where to find me, here at home.”
Ms. Maseko addressed her husband directly, telling him not to lean too much into his forgiving spirit.
“I am asking and begging you to fight harder, and your blood be the one to liberate EmaSwati,” she said, referring to the people of Eswatini.
Mr. Maseko, the youngest of eight children, was born in Bhunya, in the western part of the country. After obtaining a law degree from the University of Swaziland, he studied international law at the American University Washington College of Law in Washington. He established his own law practice in Eswatini and organized legal groups focusing on democracy and human rights.
In 2014, Mr. Maseko and a prominent Swazi journalist were sentenced to two years in prison after publishing articles criticizing the country’s judiciary as lacking independence. They were released the next year after the Supreme Court overturned their convictions.
Most recently, Mr. Maseko had led the Multistakeholder Forum, a coalition of political parties, religious organizations and civil society groups that pushed hard for democracy in Eswatini. While the parties had a common enemy in the king, activists said there was plenty of infighting and differences over the best path forward for the country.
The rampant speculation over Mr. Maseko’s killing was fueled in part by comments that King Mswati had made to his traditional regiments hours before the shooting, essentially mocking activist complaints of brutality by the police and military.
“When the long arm of the law finally catches up with them and they are thoroughly dealt with by the regime,” the king said, “they run around calling out for help saying, ‘Mswati brought mercenaries and they are killing us. Help!’”
In a statement released on the government’s Twitter account, Themba Masuku, Eswatini’s deputy prime minister, said the “unfounded allegations of state sponsored killings & use of mercenaries are not true & are part of a campaign designed to promote hatred & disorder.”
While the government does not hire mercenaries, he said it had enlisted “security experts that have been engaged to assist with certain aspects of the country’s security issues.”
Activists have been highly suspicious of Bastion Security, a company founded by a former apartheid-era soldier in South Africa, which the Eswatini government has hired to provide security training for law enforcement. Last week, Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, visited Eswatini and pledged to provide such training.
Many diplomats have urged King Mswati to engage his people in a national dialogue to find a resolution to the boiling discontent over the country’s political system. The government has resisted, saying that the violence inflicted on security forces makes such a dialogue untenable. Now there are worries that Mr. Maseko’s killing could further derail progress.
“Eswatini has lost a powerful voice for nonviolence and respect for human rights,” Ned Price, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said in a statement posted to Twitter.
“We remain deeply concerned about continuing violence in Eswatini,” he added, “and we continue to urge the government of Eswatini to set a date for an inclusive national dialogue as soon as possible.”
At Saturday’s memorial service, Dessy Choumelova, the European Union ambassador to Eswatini, called Mr. Maseko’s killing an assassination. She said the government needed to carry out a transparent investigation to “identify and prosecute those responsible for this cowardly murder.”