Johannesburg - South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu and a raft of human rights organisations have signed an open letter demanding reforms from Swaziland's King Mswati III, denouncing arbitrary arrests and prosecutions.
"We write to express our concern about the state of freedom of expression, judicial independence, and the rule of law in the Kingdom of Swaziland," reads the letter, whose authenticity a Tutu spokesperson confirmed on Friday.
The open letter urged the government "to begin meaningful discussions with the growing number of citizens and independent organisations that are demanding their basic freedoms and calling for democratic reform in Swaziland."
The international group of almost 40 activists, organisations and universities protested recent arrests of critical journalists and opposition politicians, which "demonstrated a disregard for legal procedures and basic human rights."
Arrest warrants have also been issued for three high court judges, according to the letter.
The group demanded that Mswati "order the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners detained in Swaziland."
They also called for the removal of the kingdom's chief judge, Michael Ramodibedi, a Lesotho national who was reappointed in 2012 despite a new constitution stipulating the position should be held by a Swazi.
The judge's actions "lie at the root of the current crisis," according to the group, which includes academics and law units of universities in South Africa, the United States, and France, as well as respected international rights organisations.
During his tenure as the southern African nation's most senior judge, Ramodibedi has issued an order that makes it impossible to sue Mswati, Africa's last absolute monarch.
Political parties have been banned since 1973 in the tiny kingdom landlocked within South Africa.
The hard-hitting letter adds to mounting criticism of the Swazi king and his government, which has come down hard on dissenting voices.
In May, magazine editor Bheki Makhubu was handed a suspended three-month sentence for comparing the chief justice to a high school punk.
Opposition politician Mario Masuku and activist Maxwell Dlamini of the Swaziland Youth Congress were detained after criticising the government during a May Day rally.
Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was arrested repeatedly this year for magazine columns denouncing apparent government and court abuses.
"If left unaddressed, these recent events will result in lasting damage to your country's standing with potential international investors and will lead to economic and political isolation," the open letter warned.