Swazi king refuses to sign new Constitution into law

Mbabane, Swaziland - King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, refused to sign the country's new Constitution and ordered Parliament on Tuesday to hold a joint session to reconsider sections on religion and taxing his family.

The draft Constitution, adopted by Parliament last month, is the product of eight years of consultations and seeks to meld centuries-old traditions with Western democratic principles.

Mswati, who must sign the document before it becomes law, has been under international pressure to bring reform to the kingdom of about one million people. Swaziland has been ruled by royal decree since 1973, when Mswati's father, King Sobhuza II, banned political parties.

The 37-year-old king ordered Parliament on Tuesday to meet in joint session to reconsider sections that deal with the taxation of members of the royal family and to decide if Christianity should be the official religion.

Nomthetho Simelane, a political scientist at the University of Swaziland, said the order is a sign of conflict between the king and Parliament. Simelane said many lawmakers will be intimidated and will not want to be seen as going against the king when Parliament reconsiders the document.

Mswati has the authority to decree the Constitution into law the way he wants it if Parliament does not make his recommended changes.

As adopted, the Constitution has a detailed Bill of Rights, including the right to life, liberty, equality before the law, freedom of conscience and religion, and equal treatment for women.

Freedom of expression and assembly also are guaranteed, but political parties are barred from contesting elections.

Pro-democracy groups complain the new Constitution entrenches the powers of the king, who remains head of state and must still assent to all legislation. He also appoints the prime minister, Cabinet members, key judges and some legislators.

The document includes a clause providing that a monarch who does not perform can be removed, in which case the queen mother would take over his reign. But it does not specify how this would happen.

The Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations has rejected the document, saying the drafting process was undemocratic.