JOHANNESBURG - Zambia's parliament has suspended 48 opposition lawmakers for boycotting a speech by President Edgar Lungu earlier this year, a sign of mounting tensions as the jailed opposition leader awaits trial on a treason charge.
For the next 30 days, the 48 opposition lawmakers will not be allowed to attend parliamentary sessions. The move will effectively kneecap many parliamentary committees, which will no longer form a quorum since 48 of the nation's 166 lawmakers will be out of commission. And politically, it will only further deepen the widening chasm between the increasingly entrenched ruling party and an increasingly angry opposition.
On Tuesday, Parliament speaker Patrick Matibini said the 48 members — all of them from the largest opposition party — had committed "gross misconduct" by boycotting the president's speech before parliament in March.
Opposition spokesman Charles Kakoma disagrees. He says Zambian lawmakers have frequently expressed their dissatisfaction by using similar tactics — with no consequences.
"Under our constitution, the members of parliament enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and that expression includes remaining silent, or indeed walking out, or deciding not to attend the parliament as a way of protest," he told VOA. "So they are within their constitutional rights to do so."
This latest protest comes in the middle of an ever-deepening political standoff that has been brewing for months. The trouble dates back to last year's election, in which opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema challenged Lungu at the polls, and then challenged the legitimacy of Lungu's win.
In April, Lungu's motorcade crossed paths with Hichilema's convoy on a country road in western Zambia. Hichilema's drivers refused to give way on the narrow road, prompting police to later raid Hichilema's home, arrest him and charge him with treason.
Hichilema, who leads the United Party for National Development, has been jailed for more than six weeks now over charges that rights groups say are politically motivated. His court appearances have been slow and often delayed, leading his supporters to cry foul.
He remains in a high-security facility, Kakoma says, among convicted criminals who are awaiting the death sentence.
"I visited him yesterday and it is terrible," he told VOA. "The conditions in which he is being kept are dehumanizing, they are below standard for any human being to be kept there."
'Slipping towards dictatorship'
Kakoma said the party is still planning how to react to the MPs suspension, and likely will challenge it in in court.
Ten members of the United Party for National Development were not suspended, as their absences had been excused in advance of the speech.
On Wednesday, Zambia's Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement that the nation — which had been proud of its long and peaceful history — "is slipping towards dictatorship."
Rights groups like Amnesty International also have condemned recent events in Zambia, but representatives said Wednesday they were still researching the legality of the lawmakers' suspension.