Republic of Zambia

Head of state and government: Frederick Chiluba
Capital: Lusaka
Population: 9.3 million
Official language: English
Death penalty: retentionist

The treason trial of those accused of involvement in the 1997 attempted coup ended with the High Court passing 59 death sentences, bringing the number of people on death row in Zambia to more than 220. The police force continued to shoot and kill criminal suspects as an alternative to arrest, and to torture criminal suspects with impunity. The government harassed the independent press through the courts.


In 1991 Zambia became the first country in southern Africa to transform itself from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy. When the Movement for Multiparty Democracy won the elections, expectations were raised among human rights activists both in the country and internationally. However, these expectations were not met. In the run-up to the second multi-party elections the government used various tactics to prevent opposition politicians from standing, including calling into question their citizenship. Among those stripped of their citizenship was former president Kenneth Kaunda. Several members of his party were deported to Malawi, regardless of whether Malawi accepted them as Malawian citizens. This led to a partial boycott of the 1996 elections, which international and national election monitors judged not to have been free and fair. In a period of growing international isolation, army officers staged an unsuccessful coup attempt in October 1997.

The government tried to convince the international community that it was back on the right track on human rights issues by producing a document which it presented to donors at a meeting at the World Bank in May 1999. AI contacted the Zambian authorities several times without being able to obtain a copy.

The treason trial

A total of 104 people were arrested in connection with the October 1997 coup attempt, including leading opposition politicians. The High Court ruled on various occasions that some of the detentions were politically motivated and unlawful. Nine of those arrested were tortured, according to the government's Permanent Human Rights Commission.

Of the 104 people originally charged in connection with the coup attempt, 68 defendants remained at the close of trial. Of these, 59 were convicted of treason on 17 September 1999 and sentenced to death. One was convicted of failing to notify the authorities of the plot and sentenced to 21 years' imprisonment. The remaining eight were acquitted.

Freedom of expression

Zambia has a vibrant independent press. The independent newspaper, The Post, plays a leading role and has been repeatedly targeted by the government for several years. During 1999 its journalists were charged with a number of criminal offences, the most serious being espionage, following an article citing army fears that Zambia's army would not be able to resist a possible attack from neighbouring Angola. This article appeared on 9 March. On 10 March, six journalists were arrested and held for two days. Two more journalists were arrested on 20 March, and the editor, Fred M'membe, was arrested on 22 March. All were released on bail, but their case was still pending in the courts at the end of 1999.

Secessionist fears

There is an unresolved dispute, dating back to independence in 1964, over the status of the former Barotseland Protectorate in Western Province. Fighting in the neighbouring Caprivi province of Namibia in August raised fears in Zambia of similar secessionist violence in Western Province, since the Lozi people of western Zambia belong to the same ethnic group as the Caprivi secessionists. The leader of the Barotseland Patriotic Front, Imasiku Mutangelwa, took refuge in the house of the South African High Commissioner after expressing concern about the situation in Caprivi and urging the government to allow an open debate on the self-determination of Barotseland. His house was searched and he was detained and later charged with minor offences. He was released on bail, but his court case remained pending at the end of 1999.

In September Zambia returned six Namibians with refugee status in Botswana to Namibia, in breach of fundamental principles of international refugee protection. Upon arrival in Namibia the six were imprisoned, and charged with high treason and sedition .

Freedom of association

Towards the end of 1998 a group of people tried to form an organization called Lesbians, Gays and Transsexuals of Zambia (LEGATRA). The government refused to allow the organization to register. AI considered this a breach of the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression.

African Commission rules against Zambia

The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights considered a complaint filed by AI on behalf of William Banda and the late John Chinula in April. The African Commission found that the forcible deportation of the two men from Zambia to Malawi violated various provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, including the right to freedom of expression and the right to free association. The African Commission also stated that their deportation was politically motivated. Despite this ruling by the African Commission, the Zambian government continued to deny William Banda, an opposition politician forcibly exiled to Malawi in 1994, the right to return to Zambia.

Death penalty

At least 66 people were sentenced to death during 1999, including those sentenced in the treason trial, bringing the total number of people on death row to more than 220. As far as AI was aware, no executions had been carried out in Zambia since 1997. Public debate on the death penalty was growing in Zambia, and major opposition politicians and non-governmental organizations called for its abolition.

AI country reports and visits


  • Zambia: Applying the law fairly or fatally? Police violation of human rights (AI Index: AFR 63/001/99)


An AI delegate visited Zambia in late July and early August and met AI members and representatives of human rights organizations. AI delegates also visited Zambia in September 1999, mainly to investigate conditions for refugees and to interview refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi about the war in the DRC.

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