One traffic spat in western Zambia has grown into an international incident with life-or-death implications — one that could taint Zambia's history of peaceful and democratic rule.
For more than six weeks now, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has been in jail, awaiting trial on treason charges, which carry a possible death penalty. He was arrested in April, after his convoy crossed paths with the motorcade of President Edgar Lungu on a country road, and Hichilema's drivers refused to yield to the president.
Days later, police stormed into his upscale Lusaka home, sprayed tear gas and hauled Hichilema away.
His case has proceeded in fits and starts, says Hichilema's spokesman, Charles Kakoma, who spoke to VOA on Friday outside the court, after yet another delay.
Kakoma says authorities have grossly exaggerated the charges against Hichilema.
"In fact, it was considered to be a traffic offense, and the best that could have happened was just to give him a fine for a traffic offense," Kakoma said. "But a traffic offense has been conflated into a treason case, a non-bailable offense."
Lungu and Hichilema have a bitter history — Hichilema has run unsuccessfully for president five times, and challenged the legitimacy of his latest loss, in 2016.
On Friday, magistrate Greenwell Malumani appeared in court more than five hours later than scheduled, and said his court did not have power to dismiss the charges and the case would go to the High Court.
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, executive director of the Southern Africa Litigation Center, said the ruling follows basic legal procedures.
"It is completely appropriate for them to refer the matter to a High Court, looking at the seriousness of the charge of treason," she said. "However, it is unfair that Mr. Hichilema continues to remain in detention and that bail was not considered as part of this appearance in the magistrates' court."
Hichilema's next appearance in the lower court is set for June 12. From there, the matter is expected to proceed to the high court.
South African opposition leader deported
On the eve of Hichilema's Friday court appearance, the plot spilled over Zambia's borders. On Thursday, Zambian authorities deported Mmusi Maimane, the head of South Africa's top opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Maimane was planning to attend Hichilema's trial.
South African nationals do not need visas to enter Zambia, but Maimane's staff had informed Zambian authorities of his planned visit as a courtesy.
On Friday, protesters crowded around the Zambian High Commission in Pretoria.
Government spokesman Amos Chanda told VOA that Maimane's deportation was legitimate because the politician had said he was trying to influence the court to release Hichilema, which he says is contempt of court.
DA spokesman Graham Charters says Hichilema's United Party for National Development is a sister party of theirs, and they oppose the treason charges.
"This, in our view, is absolutely, will not hold up in any court of law anywhere in the world and this is the abuse of state resources, the abuse of state institutions in order to stifle political dissent and to intimidate opposition," Charters said.
Rights groups also have sounded the alarm about the situation and say they, too, are watching keenly.