Zambia’s detained opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema pleaded not guilty to treason Monday, ahead of a trial set to fuel political tension in a country previously known for its relative stability.
Mr Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), has been in custody since April over an incident where he allegedly failed to give way to President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade.
Mr Lungu, who narrowly beat Mr Hichilema in last year’s presidential election, has dismissed allegations of growing authoritarianism and instead accused his rivals of trying to overturn the election result.
Mr Hichilema and five aides “denied the charge of treason and the state has decided to take the matter for trial on Wednesday,” UPND spokesman Charles Kakoma told foreign journalists outside the court.
He added that Mr Hichilema, who remained in custody, appeared in good health at the brief hearing.
Police officers in riot gear sealed off the court precinct as scores of UPND supporters waited outside.
A UPND lawyer, who declined to be named, had said on Sunday that the party expected the charges to be dropped and for the opposition leader to walk free at the hearing.
President Lungu invoked emergency powers in July, increasing police powers of arrest and detention after blaming opposition parties for a string of arson attacks.
Zambia has enjoyed relative stability since its first multi-party election in 1991.
But last year’s election was marked by clashes between supporters of President Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) party and the UPND.
Mr Hichilema, 55, says the vote was rigged and has refused to recognise Mr Lungu as the president.
Parliament has suspended 48 UPND lawmakers after they boycotted an address by the president in March.
Police last week released the leader of a smaller opposition party who is a fierce critic of the president after one week in detention.
Savior Chishimba, leader of the United Progressive Party (UPP), was detained by plain-clothed police, triggering further accusations of a crackdown on dissent.
The government has also increased pressure on media outlets that support the opposition, eroding Zambia’s reputation as a stable democracy.
Mr Hichilema was arrested after allegedly putting President Lungu’s life in danger when his convoy failed to make way for the presidential motorcade in a high-speed road drama caught on video camera.
Days later, more than 100 armed police surrounded his house outside Lusaka, firing tear gas before detaining him and his aides.
The two men were both travelling to Western province for a traditional ceremony.
The businessman-turned-politician has claimed he was assaulted by police during his arrest and has suffered mistreatment in detention.
Treason is a non-bailable offence in Zambia, with a minimum jail term of 15 years and a maximum sentence of death.
When he was arrested, Amnesty International said Mr Hichilema and the five co-accused were “victims of longstanding persecution” by the authorities, and faced charges that are designed to “harass and intimidate”.
President Lungu did not mince his words during the election campaigns, warning political rivals and activists that “if they push me against the wall, I will sacrifice democracy for peace.”
Accreditation cards were issued to international media but were later withdrawn.