Zambia’s outspoken opposition leader has been arrested for the second time in about six months, a party spokesman told VOA Tuesday. The arrest is part of deepening fallout from a contentious August presidential poll that both contenders claim to have won.
Opposition spokesman Charles Kakoma said police broke through the doors of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema’s upscale home late Monday, blocked the gates and doors to prevent escape, tear-gassed the occupants and then took Hichilema away.
Kakoma said police had not charged Hichilema by morning and had taken him to a police training academy for questioning. He said the party was warned that this might happen, because of an incident days before in which Hichilema’s convoy crossed paths with President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade as the two men were attempting to attend the same ceremony in western Zambia.
“In the past few days, senior people in the ruling party, the Patriotic Front, have been issuing statements that President Hakainde Hichilema must be arrested for treason,” he said from outside a police station in Lusaka.
“And what they are referring to is an incident that happened at a traditional ceremony in western Zambia, where Hakainde had gone to attend, and as he was going to attend the ceremony, the president of Zambia was also going to the ceremony in the same direction. And they are saying it was a breach of security, and want to charge him for treason.”
Lungu attended the Sunday ceremony. His office could not be reached for comment, but a statement on the presidency’s Facebook page said the institution “doesn't recognize people who come to the ceremony with the aim of disrupting it.”
This is Hichilema’s second arrest since October, when police held him and charged him and his deputy with sedition over their claims that August’s presidential poll was unfair. Dozens of their supporters were also arrested at the time.
In Johannesburg, Human Rights Watch’s southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga, said he was watching the situation with great concern. He said his organization has documented a deterioration in human rights and media freedoms in Zambia in recent months.
“We would really urge the authorities in Zambia not to abandon respect for the rule of law and people’s rights, because for a while, Zambia had been a beacon for human rights experts,” he said. “In recent months, this has not been the case.”
And Kakoma said he is worried less about the authorities than about how Hichilema’s supporters might react to his arrest.
“This is very dangerous, because the leader that we are talking about is one that is very popular, controlling in terms of population, almost half of the country voted for him, and he is widely believed to have won the last election,” he said.
“So by them taking this step, they are basically inciting the population. We don’t know what will happen, but, it also shows that the country has gone into dictatorship because it is restricting people’s rights to movement, people’s rights to assembly and speech, and basically taking away the people’s human rights, including those of political opponents.”