August 18, 2005

NGOs concerned over "political crackdown"

Zambian pro-democracy groups have expressed fears that an apparent crackdown on opposition leaders will escalate ahead of general elections in 2006. The Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace, an NGO, and rights watchdog Transparency International (TI), claim that they were concerned by the "increasing interference" of President Levy Mwanawasa in the criminal justice system, allegedly to tackle his political adversaries.
"We have been concerned with the recent turn of events: the president himself issued orders for the arrest of Michael Sata [leader of the opposition Patriotic Front]; then fired Inspector-General (IG) of police [Zunga Siakalima] for failing to do so; and when he hired the new IG, he warned him that he would be fired if he did not follow his instructions," Samuel Mulafulafu, president of the Catholic Commission, said. The president does not have the constitutional authority to interfere in the functioning of the justice system," he added.
Sata, who is now out on bail, was arrested in July and charged with spying and sedition for allegedly inciting miners to strike and riot. Sata was close to former President Frederick Chiluba but left the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy, after being overlooked as its 2001 presidential candidate, to set up the Patriotic Front. He was released on 8 August, having spent 15 days in prison. "The police should have been allowed to investigate the matter and later come up with their independent conclusion. For the president to issue orders for the arrest of individuals is serious," Mulafulafu commented.
According to the daily Post newspaper, Mwanawasa warned the new head of police, Ephraim Mateyo, while swearing him in last month that if he failed to perform his duties, "...I can assure you that you will go quicker than you came." At the same public forum Mwanawasa defended his actions by saying, "If the IG fails to exercise those functions, isn't it my duty to directly exercise those duties?" Alfred Chanda, president of TI Zambia, observed, "This departure from the norms of good governance is a serious threat to democracy and civil liberties," and added, "As we get closer to the elections we feel that there might be more acts of desperation, and opponents will be locked up."
Mwanwasa's spokesman, Arthur Yoyo, dismissed the claims as baseless and said the president's remarks at the swearing-in of the new inspector-general had been made in jest.
In July the Media Institute of Southern Africa expressed concern that freedom of expression was under threat in Zambia after police announced they were investigating charges of sedition and criminal libel against two journalists, one of whom had written articles critical of Mwanawasa. (IRIN)

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