I am calling on the Zambian authorities to immediately reverse the illegal suspension of constitutional lawyer John Sangwa, apparently for exercising his right to freedom of expression and perceived critical views of the authorities.
Under international human rights law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Zambia is a state party, lawyers, like other persons, must be guaranteed the right to exercise fundamental freedoms, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers similarly affirm that lawyers are entitled to freedom of expression, which includes, among other things: “the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights.”
Zambian authorities therefore have an obligation to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms, including when exercised by lawyers, and not to sanction such expression. Any suspension of lawyers based solely on criticism of government or its officials is a blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression of lawyers.
I am very concerned that the suspension of Mr Sangwa also failed to follow international standards of fairness and on the independence of the legal profession, such as the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which contain certain basic requirements to be followed in disciplinary proceedings against lawyers.
These requirements of due process establish that lawyers can only be sanctioned pursuant to a procedure that respects a number of guarantees including: complaints against lawyers in their professional capacity must be processed fairly and in an impartial manner and that lawyers must be allowed an independent judicial review to challenge any disciplinary action against them.
The suspension of Mr Sangwa would have a chilling effect on others in the legal profession, deterring them from commenting on matters of public concern or touching on the administration of justice for fear of repercussions.
This suspension by the Zambian authorities undermines not only the independence of lawyers but also access to justice and respect for human rights, especially given the essential role an independent legal profession plays in a democratic society.
The Zambian authorities must therefore immediately end all threats and attacks against lawyers and allow Mr Sangwa to freely and independently exercise his profession.
Femi Falana, SAN
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