Czechs held in Zambia return home

03-01-2012

Three Czechs who were detained and charged with espionage in Zambia have returned home. They showed up unexpectedly at their doorsteps at the end of the year and have refused to disclose any information regarding the nature of their escape. The Czech Foreign Ministry which made an all out effort to secure their release through regular diplomatic channels has put an information embargo on the case.

Michal Vébr, Jiří Cetel, Jan Coufal, photo: Czech TelevisionMichal Vébr, Jiří Cetel, Jan Coufal, photo: Czech Television Jan Coufal, Jiří Cetl and Michal Vébr who work for a Dutch exhibition logistics company were on a business trip to South Africa in early October when they decided to spend a few days in Zambia before returning home. It was a decision that was to change their lives. Shortly after arrival they were caught taking photographs of an old Czechoslovak plane displayed outside a military base in Lusaka, detained and charged with espionage, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

A flurry of diplomatic activity ensued in the course of which the Czech foreign minister repeatedly attempted to contact his Zambian counterpart. The Czech Republic tried to use its ambassador in neighbouring Zimbabwe as a liaison but he too was not received. The Czech Republic eventually sent a special envoy to the country to assist with the case and President Vaclav Klaus sent his Zambian counterpart, Michael Sata, a letter expressing his conviction that the men were innocent of the charges brought against them. By the end of November there was still no progress on the case except that the suspects had been released on bail pending a court hearing.

The old Czechoslovak plane displayed outside a military base in Lusaka, photo: Czech TelevisionThe old Czechoslovak plane displayed outside a military base in Lusaka, photo: Czech Television Despite messages of reassurance from the Czech authorities that everything possible was being done, it was clear that the three men were in big trouble. Then after a few days of silence, which frightened their relatives, they unexpectedly returned home without prior warning even to their families.

The Foreign Ministry and the country’s intelligence services have refused to comment on the case and Prime Minister Petr Necas made it clear no information would be forthcoming.

“I am relieved that our three nationals are safely back home. But whatever information I have about the case is strictly confidential.”

Security experts say that the men were most likely smuggled out of the country on false passports or in a diplomat’s vehicle. The use of a special commando would have attracted too much attention and is reserved for extraordinary circumstances. Information on such cases is strictly confidential in order to protect those involved and serve in similar incidents elsewhere. A Czech entomologist who mysteriously escaped from India where he faced a severe prison sentence for collecting rare species three years ago never admitted to having received any assistance from the secret services.

Jiri Cetel, who believes that he and his friends were pawns in a war between Zambia’s secret services, says that with hindsight it was rash to even unpack a camera in the country. The only statement he was willing to give the media was a warning to others.

LusakaLusaka “I just want to warn anyone who plans to travel to far-flung countries to find out as much as they can in advance about the country and its current political situation.”

The Zambian authorities have not commented on the men’s disappearance and to all accounts the three Czech suspects will now be tried in absentia.

03-01-2012