Catholic bishops are urging reforms in Swaziland, calling sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy a police state that is "tearing itself apart."
A statement issued Thursday after a Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference visit to Swaziland said the king should lift a state of emergency that has been in place for nearly four decades, reinstate "the full range of human rights" and open talks on democratization.
Swaziland's prime minister has said his country will resist outside pressure.
Swaziland's King Mswati III lives lavishly in a country of 1 million beset by high levels of poverty, unemployment and AIDS. Mswati is accused of repressing human rights and harassing and jailing pro-democracy activists.
The bishops said Swazis are deprived of rights of expression, assembly and association.
"This makes Swaziland a police state in which political parties remain banned," the bishops said. "Swaziland is a country in turmoil; a country tearing itself apart from the inside by the actions of an uncaring head of state and a regime that is getting more brutal by the day."
In April, police used water cannons, tear gas, beatings and arrests to put down pro-democracy demonstrations.
A pro-democracy movement in Swaziland, spearheaded by the unions in the absence of legal political parties, has gained some ground since the cash-strapped government announced in March its plan to freeze civil service salaries and sell off state-run companies. But besides the government crackdown, reformists have had to contend with reverence for the monarchy among many Swazis.