Prime Minister Thomas Thabane of Lesotho has been charged with the murder of his estranged former wife, police announced last week Thursday. The trial, and its verdict, could have an unforeseen canonical consequence for Thabane and his second wife, who has also been charged with the murder.

The murder took place in 2017, two days before Thabane took office as prime minister of the African nation, which is surrounded entirely by South Africa. 

Lipolelo Thebane was shot multiple times at close range as she walked beside a road in a village outside of the capital city of Maseru. The couple was in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, and Thomas Thabane was living with another woman at the time.

The prime minister married his former paramour, Maesaiah, in a Catholic wedding two months after the murder. Maesaiah Thabane has already been charged in the murder, after she surrendered to police custody earlier this month.

Charges against the prime minister were filed on Friday.

The prime minister appeared in court on Monday, Feb. 24, sitting in the public gallery with his second wife, while his lawyers argued he should be given immunity from prosecution, and that filing criminal charges against a sitting prime minister raised constitutional questions which the country's high court would need to resolve before the case could proceed.

A spokesman for Thabane said that "the prime minister is protected by the constitution," though conceding he is not "above the law." 

"This whole exercise is just meant to embarrass [Thabane] and nothing else," he said.

Paleka Mokete, Maseru's Deputy Commissioner of Police told CNN that there is a "strong case" against the prime minister for the murder of his wife.

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Thabane, 80, had previously announced that he would step down in July, and indicated that he wished to retire from public life. A spokesman for the prime minister said these plans remained unchanged.

In addition to the political and criminal repercussions of the case, the Thabane murder charges could have canonical effects.

Thomas and Maesaiah Thabane married in the Catholic Church shortly after Lipolelo's murder. Lipolelo's death brought the ongoing divorce proceedings to a close and made the marriage possible. Before the killing, Thomas Thabane was attempting to obtain legal recognition for Maesaiah as first lady, despite being still legally married to his first wife, a move Lipolelo was blocking.

Canon 1090 of the Code of Canon Law provides that "Anyone who with a view to entering marriage with a certain person has brought about the death of that person's spouse or of one's own spouse invalidly attempts this marriage."

In fact, the canon continues that "those who have brought about the death of a spouse by mutual physical or moral cooperation also invalidly attempt a marriage together," even if the collaborators didn't intend to marry.

If either or both of the Thabanes are found to be responsible for the death of Lipolelo, it could result in a determination of invalidity by a canonical tribunal.

The ecclesiastical promoter of justice in the Archdiocese of Maseru can petition the archdiocesan tribunal to consider the validity of the marriage, if he believes it is in the public interest to do so. The promoter of justice could not be reached before publication.

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