Zambian opposition politician, Hakainde Hichilema, was released from prison on Wednesday and the treason charges against him dropped, this shortly before his trial was to begin.
“Hakainde Hichilema and his five co-accused have been released from prison with the treason charge dropped,” his United Party for National Development (UPND) said on its Twitter account.
Hichilema, the leader of the UPND, had been in custody since April over an incident where he allegedly failed to give way to President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade, the French news agency AFP reported.
Hichilema, 55, was narrowly beaten by Lungu in last year’s presidential election. Lungu has vigorously denied allegations of increasing media and political restrictions, instead accusing his political opponents of attempting to overturn the election results.
On Monday, Hichilema and five of his aides denied the treason charges at a plea hearing. Treason in Zambia carries a minimum 15-year jail-term and a maximum sentence of death. Those accused of treason are not allowed to post bail.
During the hearing, police officers in riot gear sealed off the court precinct as UPND supporters waited outside, while foreign journalists were barred from proceedings.
Supporters of Lungu and followers of Hichilema clashed during last year’s elections, marring the relative calm and stability in Zambia since its first multi-party election in 1991.
The freed opposition leader says the elections were rigged and has subsequently refused to recognise Lungu as president.
Parliament suspended 48 UPND lawmakers without pay after they boycotted a Lungu address in March.
In addition to the suspensions, following a series of arson attacks blamed on opposition parties, Lungu also invoked emergency powers last month, thereby increasing police powers of arrest and detention.
Pressure has also been exerted on media outlets that support the opposition, eating away at Zambia’s reputation as a stable democracy.
Hichilema’s arrest followed allegations that he deliberately tried to endanger Lungu’s life when the opposition leader’s convoy failed to make way for the presidential motorcade as both men travelled to Western province for a traditional ceremony.
A few days later, approximately 100 policemen surrounded Hichilema’s house near the capital Lusaka and subsequently detained him and his aides.
The opposition leader claims he was assaulted by police during his arrest and mistreated while incarcerated.
Amnesty International said Hichilema and the five other accused were “victims of longstanding persecution” by authorities and faced charges designed to “harass and intimidate”.
The Non-Governmental Organisation Coordinating Council condemned Hichilema’s arrest on “trumped-up charges,” calling it “a recipe to heighten tension in an already volatile economic and political environment.”
Harsher criticism came from the traditionally coy Conference of Catholic Bishops and other church leaders, who stated that under Lungu, “Zambia eminently qualifies to be branded a dictatorship”.
Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Lungu of seeking to consolidate his power and threatening freedoms and rights in a report titled ‘Where is Zambia’s President Heading?’
During a visit to Zambia by HRW, many people interviewed by the international organisation said they were worried about the dark clouds of political intolerance.
“They feared it could threaten the country’s multi-party politics after nearly three decades of dictatorship, and its legacy of peaceful elections and transitions of power,” said HRW.
Furthermore, Lusaka is considering leaving the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Lungu called for popular consultations to decide if the country should make this move.
However, an overwhelming 93.3 percent of people who participated in the consultations said they supported remaining with the ICC.