Zambian prosecutors released opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema and dropped treason charges in a move that could help smooth a yearlong dispute between President Edgar Lungu and other political parties.
Director of Public Prosecutions Lillian Shawa-Siyunyi told a judge on Wednesday that the case against Hichilema and his five co-accused was dropped, before the judge announced the release of the six men. Outside the court in the capital, Lusaka, supporters shouted in celebration and waved open hands, which is the opposition party’s symbol. Some were in tears.
The leader of the main opposition United Party for National Development was jailed on April 11 on allegations of trying to overthrow the government after police said his convoy failed to move aside for President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade. A spate of fires prompted the government to invoke emergency measures last month.
Hichilema has refused to recognize Lungu as president of Africa’s second-biggest copper producer since a closely fought election a year ago. Last week, Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland met with both leaders and said they had agreed to talks facilitated by her office.
Scotland welcomed Hichilema’s release in an emailed statement Wednesday, and said Ibrahim Gambari, Nigeria’s former foreign affairs minister, had accepted to be her envoy to mediate talks between Lungu and Hichilema.
The opposition leader told supporters in Lusaka after his release that the discussions with Scotland had been “very good” and “straightforward.” He called for the release of UPND supporters that are incarcerated, and said Zambia’s justice system had broken down. Hichilema said he was willing to return to prison if arrests of his supporters continued.
“The timing of the move confirms the view that the charges were politically motivated,” Ronak Gopaldas, Africa strategist at Rand Merchant Bank in Johannesburg, said in emailed comments. “Regardless, this is a welcome relief and will hopefully be the first step in the normalization of Zambia’s political environment.”