ANALYSIS: A small victory, but Zambians still fear for democracy
Treason charges against opposition leader have been dropped ‘to save prosecutors being made to look more ridiculous than a grandfather in a pink miniskirt’
Treason charges against Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema were finally dropped last week, but his release from prison after a four-month incarceration is only a small victory for democracy.
Hichilema had been charged with treason for failing to give way to the motorcade of President Edgar Lungu at a traditional ceremony. The arrest has been widely condemned, locally and internationally.
The state didn’t pursue the charges because they were "trumped up", says Zambian lawyer Elias Munshya. "There was no evidence for treason. But they kept Hichilema in jail, probably in order to teach him a lesson."
Hichilema was jailed after a late-night raid on his home by heavily armed police in April.
His release was met with muted celebration. Laura Miti, executive director of the Alliance for Community Action, says Hichilema’s release "does not in any way atone" for his imprisonment. She describes the treason charges as some of the "most outlandish" ever.
Following other seemingly politically motivated cases that opposition parties have won (including one involving Hichilema’s deputy, Geoffrey Mwamba, who was acquitted on assault charges), Miti says prosecutors dropped the treason trial to save face.
"It saved the public prosecutor’s office from a further mauling by defence lawyers, had the case proceeded to trial. We have all seen how the political cases that have come up recently have resulted in state prosecutors being made to look more ridiculous than a grandfather in a pink miniskirt," Miti adds.
Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland, who met both Lungu and Hichilema on a recent visit, says the decision offers a "unique opportunity for the country to move forward in the interest of all Zambians, and to achieve political cohesion and reconciliation through dialogue".
Lungu’s ruling Patriotic Front Party suggests the decision is an endorsement of the independence of the director of public prosecutions.
"This would never have happened in a dictatorship," says the
party’s secretary-general, Davies Mwila. "We are not a dictatorship. We do not aspire to be one. We are democrats in word and deed."
For the opposition, Hichilema’s arrest is evidence of the opposite. Nevers Mumba, president of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, says: "It showed us how most organs of government can be abused to carry out political vengeance through bogus prosecutions on trumped-up charges, in collusion with those who have been entrusted with power by the people, to dispense justice on their behalf."
Hichilema has said the ruling party’s "dictatorial tendencies" don’t stop with him. "His people" are still in detention across the country and he has made it his responsibility to secure their release or he would be willing to return to prison.
"I cannot say I am free when a lot of my members are in detention. Then I am not worth being a leader," Hichilema said shortly after his release. He said members of his party were detained as recently as last week.
"We are 10 times stronger than before we were incarcerated," Hichilema said. "But our strength will be used in a correct manner because we want to make sure we provide leadership in this country so that our people can benefit from good leadership."
Munshya praises the international community’s calls for Hichilema’s release. But he says he would rather government listened to its own people and abided by the constitution. "The reason we are looking to the international community to intervene is because that’s who [government] listens to."
He adds that human rights violations in Zambia could continue if international players don’t keep up the pressure.