Zambia’s top opposition leader pleaded not guilty to treason charges in court Monday, disappointing those who had hoped the prosecution would drop the charges to make way for talks between Hakainde Hichilema and his arch-rival, President Edgar Lungu.
The case has intensified the African nation’s deepening political crisis and prompted international mediators to intervene.
Hichlema’s lawyer was tight-lipped about what he plans to say when the opposition leader appears in court later this week.
“They have pleaded not guilty to the charge,” Keith Wemba told VOA from Lusaka, the capital. “And the matter has been adjourned for trial Wednesday.”
The long saga
The political impasse started when Hichilema cried foul after losing last year’s election to President Edgar Lungu, and has intensified since Hichilema's arrest.
Last month, Lungu asked parliament to declare a 90 day state of emergency, after a fire destroyed the capital’s main market. He said the fire was an act of arson intended to destabilize the country.
Lungu’s spokesman said the state of emergency was not meant to stifle Zambians’ freedoms, as critics have claimed, but to keep citizens safe.
Hichilema was arrested after an April incident in which his convoy refused to yield to the president’s motorcade on a narrow country road.
Journalists were barred from the courtroom on Monday. The day before, several media outlets had reported Hichilema’s charges were to be dropped and he was to be released.
Those rumors swirled around the court Monday as a triumphant, but visibly leaner Hichilema waved from outside.
But the charges were not dropped. Analyst Nicole Beardsworth says it's not known why prosecutors didn’t enter a “nolle prosequi,” a Latin legal term that means “unwilling to pursue.”
“Speculation is that the reason for this is that because of all the media coverage of the intention to enter a nolle, that actually, the UPND (Hichilema's party) was going to use it as sort of a photo opportunity, that that some prominent politicians from around the region were in the courtroom, and so the government, or the prosecutor, decided not to enter the nolle today,” she told VOA.
“So it’s very much on the cards of Wednesday, and we can expect that on Wednesday the nolle will be entered into the court papers and hopefully that Hichilema will be freed on Wednesday.”
Neither the nation’s justice minister, information minister or ruling party spokesman answered numerous calls seeking comment.
But no one thinks the end of this trial will bring the political impasse to an end. Last week, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth group of former British colonies led a delegation to launch talks between Hichilema and Lungu.
Hichilema released a statement saying, “We discussed a wide range of issues regarding the governance and economic development of our country, Zambia.”
Analyst Ryan Cummings says the talks will be lengthy, “I think it’s going to be quite a consultative process, first and foremost, and definitely something that will continuously play out over the coming months, weeks, months and possibly years as we move into the next election."
Zambia, he notes, has also suffered from a harsh drought and slumping prices of its main export, copper. He says these talks must also address how to rescue the ailing economy.