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Zambia opposition leader freed in treason case

Hakainde Hichilema, 5 others released as prosecution dropped at last minute


Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema and five other party members walked free from court on Wednesday after prosecutors dropped treason charges against them.

The six United Party for National Development (UPND) members had been held in custody awaiting trial for 127 days over claims they plotted to overthrow the government of President Edgar Lungu.

As the trial was about to start, Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Lillian Siyuni told the judge the case had been discontinued.

“The office of the DPP has decided to enter a nolle prosequi in respect to all six treason accused,” she told Judge Charles Chanda.

“Since the DPP has the power to discontinue the matter at any stage of trial and without giving a reason why, I have no option but to set free all the six treason accused and so it is ordered,” the judge said.

He warned the defendants, who had pleaded not guilty to the treason charges on Monday, could still be rearrested should fresh evidence come to light.

UNPD supporters outside court cheered Hichilema as he emerged.

He narrowly lost last year’s election to Lungu, claiming the vote had been rigged and refusing to recognise Lungu as president.

Lungu denied the claims, as well as opposition and rights groups’ allegations of increasing authoritarianism following the election.

Death penalty

“What gave birth to this treason trial is the failure by Hichilema to recognize the election of president,” Choolwe Beyani, a governance research fellow at the University of Zambia.

“For us, this case was more political than criminal.”

Former minister Mike Mulongoti, who leads the opposition People Party, said the case should have proceeded. “With this nolle prosequi, the accused will remain in suspense,” he added.

Treason carries a minimum 15-year jail sentence in Zambia but can, in theory, lead to the death penalty.

The UPND members were alleged to have conspired to overthrow the government between April 5-8.

Hichilema was arrested after allegedly putting Lungu’s life in danger when his convoy failed to give way to the president’s motorcade. He alleged he was assaulted by police during the arrest as well as being mistreated in custody.

The charges were dropped after Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland reportedly brokered a deal between Lungu and Hichilema last week.

Zambia had its first multi-party election in 1991 and has enjoyed stability. However, violence between UPND followers and Lungu’s supporters marred last August’s vote.

Emergency powers introduced in July increased powers of arrest and detention following a series of arson attacks Lungu blamed of the opposition.

Jimirasire

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