The arrest of musician and activist Fumba Chama, also known as ‘Pilato’, is a shocking demonstration of how far the Zambian government is prepared to go to strangle all criticism and crack down on freedom of expression, Amnesty International said today.
Pilato was arrested at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport this afternoon on his return home after spending four months in Johannesburg, South Africa. He left Zambia in early January after receiving threats in response to his song Koswe Mumpoto (rat in the pot), which was interpreted as criticising President Edgar Lungu and his ruling Patriotic Front (PF) ministers.
A warrant for Pilato’s arrest was issued on 5 February after he failed to appear in a Zambian court on trumped up charges connected to his participation in a peaceful protest in September 2017.
“The arrest of Pilato as soon as he arrived back on home soil is a shocking affront to justice. It shows the lengths to which Zambian authorities are prepared to go to stifle dissent,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa.
“Pilato is not a criminal, he is an activist and artist. He should not spend a single night in jail. He must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Pilato fled Zambia after receiving a video message in December 2017 in which supporters of the ruling PF threatened to beat him for releasing the song, which was a major hit. In it, he sings that the ruling elite are behaving like rats that steal food.
The chairperson of the PF party for Central Province had ordered Pilato to stop singing the song on 11 December. Radio and TV stations were also ordered to stop playing it by the authorities.
Leading the fight against corruption
In September 2017, Pilato and five other activists staged a peaceful protest outside Parliament demanding accountability for the procurement of 42 fire trucks at a cost of 42 million USD.
The cost of the trucks was widely seen as exorbitant by the general Zambian population. The procurement process was also questioned, resulting in a public outcry over alleged misuse of public funds.
The six activists were arrested and beaten. They were later released on bail pending trial. The court appearances only began in 2018 and their pleas are yet to be recorded. However, since he fled the country, Pilato was not able to appear in court with fellow activists. As a result, an arrest warrant was issued in his name, it is being contested as having been issued irregularly.
“Pilato is not a fugitive from justice. What he is facing is blatant and unfair persecution for speaking out against abuse of power,” said Deprose Muchena.
“This is a classic case of misuse of the criminal justice system in Zambia, and is designed to deal with anyone who demands accountability or is seen to be embarrassing the government.”