Release of mentally ill prisoners cheers DRW

The Lusaka High Court should be highly commended for declaring the long detention of five mentally disabled persons illegal, says Disability Rights Watch (DRW) president Wamundila Waliuya.

Mr  Waliuya said the judgment had established a precedence in Zambia’s jurisprudence. This follows the release of five prisoners with mental disabilities from the Chainama East Prison by Lusaka High Court Judge Chalwe Muchenga Justice Muchenga ordered the unconditional release of five accused mental patients who were detained at Lusaka’s Chainama East Prison on charges of murder.

Those released are Situmbeko Anaenyi, Yona Lungu, Emmanuel Mwape, Stephen Phiri and John Bwembya in a judgment delivered recently.

The five, through their lawyers from Legal Resources Chamber, filed a petition in the High Court on April 25 seeking a declaration that their indefinite detention without trial was a violation of their constitutional right to a fair hearing within reasonable time.

Mr Waliuya said the continuous detention of persons with mental disabilities in prisons for long periods of time was in contradiction with international human rights law.

“The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says that “State Parties shall ensure that persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others: enjoy the right to liberty and security of person by making sure that they are not deprived of their liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily,  Any deprivation of liberty should be in conformity with the law, and that the existence of a disability shall in no case justify a deprivation of liberty”.

He said persons with mental disabilities who have been declared not fit to undergo trial and needed treatment have been detained for many years in prisons while the conditions under which they were detained were not pleasant.

“Like today, many more such prisoners are still in prison without a fair trial and there is no one to stand for the protection of their rights to be only there when found guilty after a fair trial,” he said.

Mr Waliuya stated that the Zambian government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and was bound to stick to its principles.

He added that government further enacted a progressive law which required the courts to provide support for persons with disabilities to access court proceedings on an equal basis with other persons.

Mr Waliuya said the courts should now shape themselves to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with mental disabilities rather than detaining them for many years as they wait for psychiatry assessment.

He said it should be realised that most of the people who commit crimes while in a state of mental crisis were usually triggered by social factors, and therefore it should be the responsibility of the State and the citizenry at large to ensure factors that trigger mental crisis in many of the persons with mental disabilities were controlled.

Mr Waliuya has since called for a serious consideration to develop comprehensive community based support services for persons with mental disabilities that would act as a measure to reduce mental disabilities as well as for rehabilitation purposes.