Opinion

Is Michael Sata Using ‘Lawfare’ against Henry Banda’s Lawyer?

Three months ago, President Michael Sata filed a defamation suit against Henry Banda’s international lawyer, Robert Amsterdam. Now Mr. Amsterdam is facing a similar lawsuit from a General in the Royal Thai Army, who is upset over a speech the lawyer gave in which he accused the Army of killing civilians during a crackdown against protesters in 2010.

A top Canadian newspaper has published an article examining the similarities between the two cases. According to the Toronto Star, Mr. Amsterdam will not back down from his criticisms of either government despite the lawsuits.

Amsterdam, who represents both the former President Rupiah Banda and his son Henry Banda, said Tuesday that the growing frequency with which defamation law is being used as a tool to silence opposition is a “very worrying trend overall.”

In the case of Thailand, Amsterdam’s firm presented an application to the International Criminal Court on behalf of Thailand’s National United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — the Red Shirts — asking it to investigate senior officials (including former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and army commander-in-chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha) for alleged crimes against humanity in the spring of 2010, when the government opened fire on demonstrators calling for elections, resulting in the deaths of more than 90 people. The accused General Prayuth has filed a defamation complaint, which Amsterdam says is an attempt to silence him and prevent him from entering the country.

In Zambia, President Sata sued Amsterdam and the editors of the Daily Nation newspaper for an interview which criticized the PF government for its attacks on the judiciary as part of the DBZ-Post-Nchito case, whereby judges were removed for requiring debt service by close allies of the president.  President Sata has also filed multiple lawsuits against opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, while two civil servants who criticized the president are now facing jail.

Amsterdam believes that authoritarians abuse defamation laws in order to silence their opponents:  “I’m able to have a voice because of the multiplicity of channels based on the Internet,” said Amsterdam.  “And I think that’s why we’re seeing this rise, and I think that’s why autocrats like (Sata) and (Prayuth) are resorting more to these types of instruments.”

According to The Star, international law experts like Aurel Braun, a political science and international law professor at the University of Toronto, call law used as a tool to silence opposition “lawfare” — a means of psychological warfare.

“It is a misuse of law because law operates on the basis of legitimacy and respect. And law is supposed to be independent of political whim. Law is supposed to be impartial,” said Braun.

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