The Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) have expressed their deep concern at the unlawful arrest and continued detention of Zambian HIV and human rights activist Paul Kasonkomona and called upon the police to release him from custody with immediate effect.
Kasonkomona was picked up by the police on Sunday at the gates of Muvi TV, a private television broadcaster, after he had appeared on a programme to debate the issue of same-sex marriages in Zambia. During the programme, Kasonkomona spoke out openly in favour of gay rights.
The police officers who arrested Kasonkomona were reportedly acting on the orders of the Acting President and Home Affairs Minister, Edgar Lungu, who is notorious for his strident public opposition to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals.
“The unlawful arrest and detention of Paul Kasonkomona is a blatant attempt to silence anyone who promotes the human rights of sexual minorities in Zambia,” said Anneke Meerkotter, lawyer at SALC. “It is also an alarming attack on the right of all Zambians to exercise their right to the freedom of expression.”
In addition, Kasonkomona has still not been brought before court.
“It is unlawful for the police to detain Paul for more than 48 hours without taking him before a magistrate,” said Chivuli Riva Ukwimi, OSISA’s Marginalised Populations Coordinator. “This is clearly a politically-motivated violation of his most basic rights.”
Kasonkomona has been charged under section 178(g) of the Zambian Penal Code, Chapter 87 of the Laws of Zambia, for soliciting in a public place for an immoral purpose. This idle and disorderly person offence was included in the English Vagrancy Act in 1898 and has since been repealed in England. The specific offence was never intended to curb free speech on contentious issues of interest to the public. It is outrageous that someone charged with such a minor offence has had to spent three nights in custody.
“Zambia should have repealed this repressive colonial-era law many years ago,” said Meerkotter. “Instead, the police are continuing to use it to arrest and detain people even though the charges are completely unrelated to their acts.”
The arrest of Kasonkomona comes barely a week after civil society organisations in Zambia called on the government to reform laws that inhibit the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
“We urge Zambian police to withdraw the spurious charge against Paul Kasonkomona and to release him from custody with immediate effect,” said Meerkotter.