Zambia plans to drop treason charges against the country’s main opposition leader and free him from prison on Monday under a deal brokered by the Commonwealth secretary-general, government and legal sources told Reuters.
The United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema and five others were arrested in April and charged with treason after Hichilema’s convoy failed to make way for President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade.
Hichilema’s trial had been due to begin this Monday in the capital Lusaka but two sources said the prosecution would apply to the court to discontinue the case.
The case has stoked political tensions in Zambia, seen as one of Africa’s more stable and functional democracies, following a bruising election last year.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland visited Zambia last week and told reporters she had met Lungu and Hichilema separately and that the two leaders had agreed to a process of dialogue facilitated by her office.
“That process of dialogue, which the Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland is leading with the help of Catholic bishops, starts with the release of the opposition leader from prison,” a government source told Reuters on Sunday, referring to local religious leaders.
“The state will discontinue the treason case in the public interest as both the opposition leader and the head of state are committed to burying their past and starting dialogue envisaged to help address some of the issues the opposition raised after the 2016 elections so that the 2021 elections are better held.”
A spokesman for the UPND said the party was unaware of any plan to release Hichilema.
“We don’t have anything on that. We are not privy to the agreement that was entered into between the two leaders and therefore can only wait for tomorrow,” UPND spokesman Charles Kakoma said.
The UPND later said that Hichilema and his co-accused were transferred from Mukobeko Maximum Prison – about 130 km (81 miles) north of the capital – to Lusaka Central Prison.
“They were airlifted this morning and have arrived safely in Lusaka,” the party said.
The government source said Lungu is committed to all aspects of the dialogue agreed between the president and the opposition leader, which include promoting peace, stability and public good.
“An overt act serious enough to warrant prosecution exists but the public interest seems to be the overriding consideration, so a nolle prosequi will be entered,” a public prosecutor told Reuters, using the legal term for the discharge of a case.
The southern African country has always been relatively stable but relations between the government and the opposition have been fraught since August when Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) beat the UPND in a presidential election marred by violence and which the opposition says was rigged.
It was the second time that Lungu beat Hichilema, an economist and businessman popularly known by his initials “HH”, in a presidential election by a razor-thin margin.