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Gone are the days when King Mswati III of Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarch, could expect meek subjugation to his amorous rule.

The 34-year-old King and well-known playboy was only following in his ancestors' footsteps when he took three potential new brides last month from among the thousands of virgins who danced bare-breasted before him, as happens every year in traditional reed ceremonies.

But then the British-educated King's troubles began: The mother of one of the brides, 18-year-old Zena Mahlangu, turned out to be one of Swaziland's leading corporate executives and a feminist. Moreover, she filed a lawsuit against the ruler.

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In what is the first challenge to royal polygamy in the tiny southern African kingdom of green hills and conflicting cultural forces, Lindiwe Dlamini claimed the engagement was illegal because she did not know that her daughter, Ms. Mahlangu, had attended the reed dancing ceremony, and the family had not given its approval to the marriage.

Ms. Dlamini, a Swaziland Post and Telecommunications executive, alleged last month that palace aides spirited her daughter, an A student, from the Mlalatini Training Centre where she is a boarder, and took her to a royal guesthouse, where she is being prepared to wed the monarch.

Even in a country that is considered the most socially conservative in southern Africa, the sensational case has stunned residents.

The present King's father, Sobhuza II, married at least once every year during his 60 years on the throne. He died in 1982.

Mswati III has been lagging only slightly since assuming the crown in 1986, even though many Swazi activists had hoped their new King, who was educated at Britain's exclusive Sherbourne School, would respect newer concepts of gender equity.

Instead, he is reputed to have developed a passion for kwaito music, the popular South African fusion, and palace parties. The young King has also crushed political protest, dragged his heels on constitutional reform and refused to hold democratic elections, not held since independence from Britain in 1968.

That the King is above the law is weighing heavily against Ms. Dlamini and her case. Since the King cannot be charged under Swazi law, the case was brought against two palace aides accused of "abducting" Ms. Mahlangu.

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Chief Justice Stanley Sapire, one of three judges hearing the case, confirmed this week the courts have no jurisdiction over the King; matters pertaining to Swazi law and custom are referred to traditional authorities.

"This is a matter for Swazi law and custom," argued Attorney-General Phesheya Dlamini, who is leading the defence team. He insisted the King and Ms. Mahlangu had become romantically involved and enjoyed long conversations.

"The King will decide whether to keep the girl as his fiancée, in which case the matter is at an end, or to send her home."

One of the accused aides told the court that Ms. Mahlangu had gone willingly, after a brief courtship via cell phone with the King.

Strengthening the hand of Ms. Dlamini, who feels her daughter is too young to make marital choices, is evidence that King Mswati III has broken royal rules, including one of his own decrees.

She said in a court submission that her daughter is not eligible under custom to marry the King, because she is a twin and because she is not pure Swazi; her father was a South African from the Ndebele tribe.

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Swazi custom obliges the King to obtain parental permission. Ms. Dlamini has argued that because she is a widow, and women are not allowed to own property or enter legal contracts, the King should have obtained consent from Ms. Mahlangu's grandfather.

She also alleged the King was violating his decision last year to reinstate umchwasho, an ancient chastity rite that bans sex for five years for women under the age of 19.

He had said the old practice was needed to control the spread of the AIDS virus, which has infected roughly one in three adults in the country.

This week, the palace failed to produce Ms. Mahlangu in court, which the Chief Justice had requested. In response, Judge Sapire appointed two high court officials to interview her at the Manzana royal guesthouse outside Mbabane, and to report back to court next Tuesday.

Barristers Margaret van der Walt and Maxine Langwenya are to visit Ms. Mahlangu "to find out if she is there of her own free will and whether she has a relationship with the King."

Fearing she will be coerced, her family wants her to testify in the court case.

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"I think they want to draw as much publicity as they can to ridicule the kingdom and its customs," said one of the royal family's princes, Mfanasibili Dlamini, who insisted that no woman had married a king unwillingly.

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