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Zambian Chief Justice Ordered Not to Declare Winner in Presidential Elections - 2002-01-01

Chaos erupted both inside and outside the Zambian Supreme Court building Tuesday, where a High Court judge ordered the chief justice not to declare a winner of the presidential elections until Wednesday morning. Outside the courthouse, police fired tear gas at protesters, who then stormed the courtroom.

The large crowd outside the courthouse had grown impatient with delays. They awaited a decision from the judge - would he order the presidential inauguration to be delayed, or not?

Then rumors started circulating that a ruling party member in western Lusaka had assaulted three opposition supporters. The angry crowd smashed the chains on a massive iron gate, forcing their way onto the courthouse lawn. That was when police started firing tear gas - round after round of it.

Opposition party leader Bob Shichinga was there, trying to calm the crowd. "The crowd obviously were reacting," he said, "and the police started tear-gassing them. As you can see, people rushed in here to avoid the teargas."

Inside the courtroom, people could hear the sound of tear gas canisters being fired outside. Then the sound of chanting protesters grew louder. They were clearly inside the building.

All of a sudden, more than 30 protesters stormed into the courtroom, chanting and banging on the walls. Many held wet rags over their faces to ward off the gas.

The halls of the court building were choked with tear gas. People who managed to push their way outside, were forced to turn back, eyes burning. Opposition supporters, members of parliament, and local and foreign journalists were trapped inside the courthouse for more than half an hour.

Just moments earlier, the court had adjourned for the day. Judge Patrick Chitengi granted a temporary restraining order, saying no winner should be declared in the presidential race until he rules Wednesday on an opposition party appeal, which claims the voting was rigged.

Opposition lawyers had asked the High Court judge to order his boss, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to delay naming a winner. Zambia's electoral commission, was preparing to declare ruling party candidate Levy Mwanawasa the victor. He narrowly leads his main opposition rival, Anderson Mazoka, with more than 90 percent of the ballots counted.

The basic issues before the judge have yet to be resolved. The government claims the High Court has no jurisdiction. It has applied to have the case dismissed.

George Chisanga is a lawyer for the opposition parties. He says the judge first has to decide whether he has a right to hear the case. "Actually," he said, "what's going to happen is, if the court decides that it's got jurisdiction, then we will address the court on the merits of the case. But if he says it doesn't have jurisdiction, then that ends the whole case. Then we will look to an alternative."

There is no legal precedent for what the opposition parties are demanding - stopping election results before they are officially declared. But party leaders fear if they wait to challenge the results afterward, the case could drag on for years.

Outgoing Zambian President Frederick Chiluba has appealed to the nation to accept the results of the election, and to accept his handpicked successor, Mr. Mwanawasa, as president. He said, "We must keep in mind the fact that those who have won the elections are just as Zambian and just as interested in the welfare of this country as ourselves and those that may have lost."

But the opposition supporters say they will never accept Mr. Mwanawasa as president. They intend to march on the courthouse again Wednesday morning when court re-convenes. They say they intend to stop the inauguration even if the judge refuses to do so.