Nineteen international Civil Society Organisations have asked the Zambian government to stop the persecution of six activists who were arrested for protesting against fire tenders at Parliament buildings on September 29, 2017.

In a letter dated October 25, 2017, addressed to Justice Minister Given Lubinda and his Home Affairs counterpart Stephen Kampyongo, the CSOs among them; Association of Development Agencies (ADA) in Jamaica, Acción Solidaria on HIV/Aids, Venezuela and ARCA, Costa Rica condemned the arrest of the activists saying it was a violation of their right to freedom of expression and assembly.

The CSOs stated that the arbitrary arrests and detention of the activists was a violation of their Constitutional rights and of the country’s regional and international human rights obligations.

“We, the undermentioned National Associations of Civil Society Organisations, write to express our deep concern over the arbitrary arrests of Mr Lewis Mwape and five other activists including two females on 29 September 2017, as they protested peacefully en route to the Parliament building. All six were arrested as they called for transparency and accountability over the purchase of 42 fire trucks for forty-two million US dollars. They are all members of civil society groups and individual human rights defenders. The male activists were held at the Emmasdale police station and their female colleagues were detained at the Garden police post before being released,” the letter read.

“Mr Minister, we recognise the fact that Zambia is a democratic state and citizens have the right to request answers and transparency on issues that affect them, including the use of public funds. The arbitrary arrests and detention of these activists and their scheduled court appearance on 27 October 2017 is a violation of their right to freedom of expression and assembly, as guaranteed in the Zambian Constitution, and of the country’s regional and international human rights obligations.”

The CSOs expressed concern that the Zambian government’s tendency of arresting and persecuting those with divergent views would instill fear in citizens.

“We are concerned that any form of judicial persecution of the activists may set a negative precedent wherein those who engage in peaceful protests and express views that are different from those of the government are targeted by the state. It may also compel others who would want to speak out in the future not to do so for fear of persecution,” the letter read.

“We therefore write to urge the Zambian authorities to ensure that the rule of law is respected and that the rights of all the activists are guaranteed as they appear in court. Mr Minister, for some time, we have watched with trepidation, the erosion of fundamental rights in Zambia and we are worried that Zambia’s rich democratic history and its status as a model in Southern Africa is being threatened.”

The CSOs advised government to drop the charges against Mwape and the five other activists in order to preserve the country’s democracy.

“On 5 July 2017, for example, President Edgar Lungu proclaimed a state of threatened emergency. We felt at the time that there was no reasonable justification for the executive to invoke emergency powers. These restrictions on fundamental freedoms will reverse the democratic gains made over the years, if they continue. We therefore urge the government of Zambia and the judiciary to drop the case against Mr Lewis Mwape and all 5 activists when they appear in court on 27 October,” read the letter.

Last month, a group of activists lead by Alliance for Community Action executive director Laura Miti and her Zambia Social Development Council counterpart Lewis Mwape along with Copperbelt based singer Fumba Chama alias Pilato, got arrested at Parliament buildings for protesting against government’s decision to purchase 42 fire trucks at a cost of $1 million each.