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ZAMBIA: Justice delayed becoming justice denied

Dec 21, 2009

from Lewis Mwanangombe's article on

Harry Mubita was tired of his wretched condition in prison. He had been in Lusaka Central Prison for more than a year, and still there was no sign that his theft case would be heard.

Mubita, a tailor, accepted money from a woman who wanted him to make her a traditional dress known as the Chitenge Outfit – a long skirt and an intricately cut and sewn top, with a matching wrap-around and head-scarf. All made from a single length of material. 

But he failed to deliver. 

Mubita also did not refund the ZMK70,000 (about 14.40 dollars) payment, or return the six metres of cotton print. The aggrieved woman told the police, and two constables armed with AK-47 rifles arrested Mubita at his Kaunda Square Market shop. Mubita's case is not unusual. 

....Sakala admits there are too few courtrooms and even fewer magistrates. 

"I have files full of complaints on delayed judgments and adjournments," chief justice Sakala said earlier this year. He accused the local court justices, magistrates and judges of frustrating justice by ordering what he described as 'strangely long adjournments of cases, regardless of whether the matters are urgent or not’. 

Zambia's prisons are consequently bursting at the seams with humanity. Penitentiaries built by imperial Britain to hold a few hundred are now overcrowded with thousands. 

Lusaka Central Prison, for example, built by colonial Britain in the late 1950s for about 300 inmates, is crammed with about 1,800 prisoners – those convicted or awaiting trial. 

"We are so overcrowded that when we sleep we cannot turn over freely. We all have to agree that we are turning to the right, and that is when we can do it simultaneously," Mubita lamented. 

Another former prisoner says in some cells prisoners have to sleep in turns: while others sleep another group will be standing over their inert bodies. After a while they exchange positions. 

The ministry of home affairs estimates there are about 33,000 offenders in the hell-hole prisons country-wide, but the prison upkeep is something the government does not want to talk about. 

....But it is not the budget or the wrangling of lawyers which are of interest to the poor languishing in prisons. It is not even the decision of the National Constitutional Conference to adopt a clause on the retirement age of the chief justice, and set it at 70. 

"They can talk about the retirement age of the chief justice, but will that speed up the wheels of justice in this country?" Howard Banda of the Prison Fellowship of Zambia asks. 

Like most Zambians with relatives in prison, this civil society organisation is concerned about delayed justice for many and hastened justice for a few. 

"When are these people likely to receive their justice?" he asks, adding that some suspects have been held in prison for as long as four years without seeing the end of their case. 

Admittedly, as with all aspects of Zambian life, the dispensing of justice has been compromised by HIV/AIDS, whose prevalence rate is at 16 percent, while life expectancy has dropped from 57 to 37. 

Some court cases are often deferred repeatedly, either because presiding officers die of AIDS-related illnesses, or they are ill because of HIV, or their spouses and children are affected by the virus. 

As for Mubita, he eventually walked out to freedom after the court sentenced him to six months, but since he had languished in prison for an entire year, it was ruled that he had served his sentence. And finally he was released. 

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