IBAHRI concerned by arrest of human rights lawyers in Zambia

The International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute is concerned by the recent arrest of human rights lawyer Oliver Holland in Zambia. Mr Holland, a lawyer with London-based law firm Leigh Day, was escorted to Chingola Central Police Station and detained without charge after conducting meetings with clients of a class action lawsuit in Zambia on Tuesday 10 January.

Mr Holland was meeting with clients from village communities regarding a lawsuit filed by 1,800 Zambian villagers against UK-based mining multinational Vedanta Resources and its Zambia-based subsidiary, Konkola Copper Mines (KCM). Both companies have been accused by villagers of being responsible for polluting their water sources and farm land, resulting in illness, death and low crop yields.

Mr Holland was initially detained under the Public Order Act which prohibits meetings of more than three people without a police permit. However, the very nature of Mr Holland's work - representing 1,800 villagers with limited access to alternative means of communication - requires that he update his clients via group meetings involving around 100 to 150 people at a time.

After being detained for four hours, Mr Holland was informed that he was instead charged under the Penal Code Act for Unlawful Assembly. Upon being offered to have the charge reduced to a misdemeanour and a fine if he agreed to the offence, Mr Holland accepted and was released.

The Commanding Officer of the Police Station informed Mr Holland that he would have to seek a police permit before meeting with his clients in future. In order for Mr Holland to consult his clients the next day he was required to not only request a permit, but also consent to the presence of an undercover armed police officer at the meetings.

The IBAHRI Co-Chairs, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC andAmbassador Hans Corell (ret.), have urged the Zambian government to adhere to the obligations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the country has ratified. In addition to the ICCPR prohibiting arbitrary arrest and detention, it also requires that access to a lawyer be granted to everybody. Baroness Kennedy stated: 'When lawyers are obstructed by the state in their endeavour to perform their professional duties it calls into question that state's commitment to the cause of a fair, open and just society. By impeding on the ability of these communities to access their lawyer, the government is infringing this right.'

Ambassador Corell responded to the incident by calling on Zambia to affirm its commitment to the independence of the legal profession: 'International human rights standards require governments to "ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference." The IBAHRI calls on the Zambian authorities to ensure that the experience of Mr Holland is not repeated, and lawyers are able to operate independently without fear of retribution or identification with their clients.'