THE Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) has lodged a complaint with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (the African Commission) on behalf of exiled Zambian human rights defender Gregory Chifire.
In a statement dated July 22, 2019, Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) filed the complaint in terms of Article 55 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (the African Charter), asking the African Commission to, amongst other things, investigate and recommend that a finding of contempt of court by the Supreme Court of Zambia, against Chifire for expressing an opinion on a final judgment is an infringement of the rights to freedom of expression and dignity under Articles 9(2) and 5 of the Charter.
On November 23, 2018, the Supreme Court of Zambia sentenced Chifire, a human rights defender and anti-corruption activist, to six years simple imprisonment on contempt of court charges.
Chifire had called for an investigation into potential judicial corruption in the country but was instead arrested and charged with contempt of court for making such a call.
The contempt of court charges against Chifire were brought following an article he wrote about a case where Stanbic Bank (the largest bank in Zambia) referred Savenda to a credit bureau, for blacklisting.
In the May 9, 2018 article published on an online news portal, Chifire criticised the ruling of the Supreme Court of Zambia, on the basis that the judges in the case between the two companies seemed not to have followed the law in his opinion. He implicitly questioned whether there had been any form of corruption involved given that in other media reports, investigative journalists reported that the litigant bank had bribed judges from the Supreme Court.
Chifire also wrote a letter to Chief Justice Irene Mambilima concerning the matter, requesting her to investigate the serious allegations made against the judges and the bank and take remedial action.
“Instead of the authorities investigating the credible allegations of corruption, the state preferred charges against Mr Chifire and Bishop John Mambo, Chairman of the Board of the Chikondi Foundation (a church-based charitable organisation providing for the poor), who also wrote a letter on the matter to Chief Justice Mambilima. Both men were charged with contempt of court for their letters to the Chief Justice. Mr Chifire denied the charges in a trial which began on 17 July and concluded on 19 September,” Arnold Tsunga, SAHRDN Chairperson and Africa Director of the International Commission of Jurists, stated.
“Mr Chifire was forced into exile before the matter was concluded. On 23 November 2018, the Supreme Court of Zambia found Mr Chifire to be guilty of being in contempt of court and sentenced him to six years imprisonment in absentia. This case against Mr Chifire and the manner in which the law was used to silence HRDs is an affront to the three principles in which a democracy is based upon: openness, transparency and accountability.”
Tsunga stated that it was the view of the SAHRDN that the way in which Chifire brought the issue of possible judicial corruption to the attention of the Chief Justice fell within the ambit of acceptable conduct on judicial accountability.
“The conviction and disproportionate sentencing is therefore unfair and a violation of his right to freedom expression,” he added.
“Beside the right to freedom of expression being violated, the SAHRDN is also concerned that there was a possible infringement of the right to a fair trial, especially the right to be heard by an impartial court, considering that some of the judges who sat on the Supreme Court bench, deciding on his cases, were the same judges against whom Mr Chifire had lodged a complaint before the Judicial Services Commission, and whose conduct he had complained of to the Chief Justice.”
Tsunga stated that the right to freedom of expression plays a crucial role in the functioning of a democracy.
He stated that SAHRDN believed that the existence of the right to freedom of expression was foundational to the exercise of other rights that make societies strengthen their democracy.
Tsunga stated that use of contempt of court proceedings to stifle and prevent people from forming opinions and expressing their views freely was not reasonably necessary in a democracy.
“The SAHRDN hopes that this complaint to the African Commission and the remedies that are being sought will not only protect the rights of Mr Chifire, but set precedent for many other HRDs in the region experiencing such suppression,” stated Tsunga.
And SAHRDN Deputy Chairperson and Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation in Malawi Timothy Mtambo stated that SAHRDN felt compelled to take Chifire’s case as part of its long-term protection programme of HRDs under the Hub Cities project in Southern Africa.
“Mr Chifire as a HRD, had exhausted all the domestic legal remedies available to him in an effort to vindicate his rights. The Supreme Court as the highest court in Zambia acted as a court of first instance in Mr Chifire’s case, sitting as a full bench of 9 judges. There is no domestic recourse to appeal their decision,” Mtambo said. “It means that Mr Chifire had come to a dead end in Zambia and the SAHRDN as part of its mandate to protect HRDs in Southern Africa was left with no option but to pursue litigation at the African Commission.”
SAHRDN also called on the international community to continue closely monitoring threats to civic space in Zambia and the situation of HRDS and to raise concerns in their interactions with the Zambian government.