February 19, 2003

Ex-President loses immunity, risks arrest

Former Zambian head of state Frederick Chiluba has lost a last minute bid to retain his immunity from prosecution, effectively paving the way for his arrest. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court on Wednesday, February 19, unanimously dismissed Chiluba's appeal against a parliamentary ruling last year that lifted the immunity against prosecution he enjoyed as a former president. Chiluba's lawyer, Robert Simeza, told IRIN after the ruling that his client "is now going to be arrested". Soon after the verdict, Chiluba was asked to appear at the offices of the government's task force on corruption.

The former Zambian president faces several criminal charges for offences he allegedly committed during his 10-years in power, dubbed by critics as a "decade of plunder". The high-profile case began in July when Chiluba's chosen successor, President Levy Mwanawasa, asked parliament to lift Chiluba's indemnity as part of his crusade against corruption. Mwanawasa argued that the charges levelled against his predecessor were in direct conflict with Zambia's national interest.

They included a US $20.5 million payment to a Congolese businessman, Katebe Katoto, for military equipment that was never delivered. Katoto is now a vice-president in the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chiluba has also been accused of involvement in the undervalued sale of cobalt, in which Zambia lost US $60 million.

The Supreme Court's decision was generally welcomed by commentators IRIN spoke to. "This is the kind of judgement that the Zambian people were expecting," opposition Zambia Alliance Party president, Dean Mungomba, said. Nellie Mutti, chair of the Anti-Corruption Commission investigating the mismanagement of the national economy and abuse of office, welcomed the decision. "I think it is good that the Supreme Court has finally made a decision on this matter. Now we can move onto other cases and make progress," he told IRIN.

But some analysts have suggested that the ruling was a double-edged sword that Zambia's leaders could come to regret. "I think as a deterrent against corrupt leaders, the decision is good," said Fred Mutesa, an analysts from the University of Zambia's Department of Development Studies. "But this has set a precedent that has long-term ramifications that will not spare Mr Mwanawasa and his friends from the ruling party when they are no longer in power."

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition by three opposition parties who allege that the December 2001 election, which brought Mwanawasa to power, was marred by vote-buying and other electoral malpractice. The accusations have been supported by international and local election monitoring groups. "The trial has now moved on to Mwanawasa. He must tell us just how much Chiluba stole, and how much of that money Mwanawasa benefited from," Michael Sata, the leader of the opposition Patriotic Front, said outside the court house.

The Supreme Court has in recent days heard damaging testimony from incarcerated former intelligence chief Xavier Chungu and former finance minister Katele Kalumba. They have stated under oath that they used tax payers money to bank-roll Mwanawasa's campaign, and to clean up his personal debts ahead of the polls, in breach of Zambia's electoral laws. But according to Mulenga Mambwe, who described himself as an opposition supporter: "As long as Chiluba goes in jail, I will feel good. Mr Mwanawasa can be dealt with later if need be."

Mwanawasa also has problems within his own party. He was initially regarded at Chiluba's protégé. His subsequent determination to prosecute Chiluba and his senior lieutenants in the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) has helped undermine party unity. Chitalu Sampa, MMD chairman and former defence minister said that the Supreme Court decision was likely to cause further divisions. (IRIN)


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