Three Czech nationals to be tried for spying in Zambia

Jiří Cetel, Jan Coufal, Michal Vebr, photo: CT24

The fate of three Czech nationals who are awaiting trial in Zambia on suspicion of spying, remains highly uncertain. The three face 25 years in prison for having taken photographs of an old plane displayed outside a military base in Lusaka. The Czech Foreign Ministry has tried in vain to intervene on their behalf and is now sending a special envoy to the country to present the case in person.

Jiří Cetel,  Jan Coufal,  Michal Vebr,  photo: CT24
Jan Coufal, Jiří Cetel and Michal Vebr visited Zambia as tourists while on a business trip to South Africa in mid-October. Their decision to take holiday snapshots of an old Czechoslovak aircraft displayed outside a military base in Lusaka had far-reaching consequences. They were arrested by local police and had their passports, cameras and a downloaded Google map confiscated –as part of evidence that they were collecting information about the military facility in question. The Zambian secret service accused them of being spies on the grounds of a number of photographs and the simple fact that the barracks in question were featured on the Google map.

The three men, aged between 35 and 45, spent a week in custody before being released, pending their court appearance. The local authorities are still holding their passports and they have to check in regularly at a local police station ahead of their trial. If convicted of the charges against them the three could spend 25 years in prison.

Photo: CT24
Repeated efforts by the Czech Foreign Ministry to intervene on their behalf have proved unsuccessful, and after failing to establish contact for close to a month, the ministry has decided to send a special envoy to the country to negotiate the matter. Since the Czech Republic only has a consul in Lusaka, the Czech Ambassador in Zimbabwe Luděk Zahradníček is now involved in the case. I called him to find out what circumstances the three men are now in and what their prospects are.

“They are lodged in an unfinished house belonging to the brother of our honorary consul, which is not a big luxury, but they have made some improvements there so they now have running water and electricity and the basics that people need. They are free to move around the city, shop or have dinner in a restaurant so their living conditions at present are not as bad as they were when they were placed in police cells at the beginning of the affair. They spent seven days in police cells which were really very shabby and unhygienic. “

Photo: CT24
But their prospects are now extremely bleak. I understand they face 25 years in prison. What is being done for them?

“I have gone to Lusaka several times in person. I tried to get through to the ministry of foreign affairs, because as I diplomat I have to observe strict protocol, but so far, to no avail. Also the Czech Foreign Minister, Mr. Schwarzenberg, tried to reach his counterpart by phone, but for some reason it did not happen. Still, we are trying to use all the channels which we have and the minister has decided to send a special envoy who is expected to arrive next week in Lusaka and of course we also have a very good lawyer. But the problem here is that the secret services of the Zambian army and air-force are involved which –according to my knowledge –insist that the trial takes place. Despite the fact that there is no real evidence of espionage against the three men.”

Luděk Zahradníček,  photo: archive of the Czech Foreign Ministry
On the grounds of similar cases in the past, what are their prospects?

“It is very hard to say –it is in the hands of the director of public prosecution who, once he has seen the evidence collected, can drop the case before it comes to court. But is seems that he also is afraid of the secret service so there is a high probability that the case will reach court and it would not be very soon. It seems that the high court of Zambia is overburdened with cases so it could easily happen that this case may not reach court before January of next year. “