LUSAKA (Reuters) - Zambia opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, arrested last week on suspicion of treason, was charged in a magistrate’s court on Tuesday with trying to overthrow the government.
Relations between the government and opposition have been raw since last August, when President Edgar Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) party beat Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) in a vote the opposition says was rigged.
Police in Africa’s No. 2 copper-producing country raided Hichilema’s house on April 11 to arrest him and he was initially charged with treason for obstructing Lungu’s motorcade.
In court on Tuesday, he was charged with treason in that “(he together with other persons did prepare or endeavored to overthrow by unlawful means the government” between Oct. 10 last year and April 8 this year.
The charge in the motorcade incident was changed to disobeying instructions from a police officer by failing to give way to a presidential motorcade and using insulting language.
The court directed that Hichilema should be allowed visits by his children and at least five other family members following an application by his defense lawyers, who said he had so far been allowed to see only his wife.
Dressed in a red coat and khaki shirt, Hichilema waved his party symbol to supporters in court and stood throughout.
The prosecution is expected to respond to the issues raised on Wednesday after which the magistrate will make a ruling. Hichilema and five others facing the same charges, who are all members of his party and include his driver, did not enter pleas as treason can only be tried in the high court.
Lungu has narrowly beaten Hichilema, an economist and wealthy businessman who goes by the nickname “HH”, in two presidential elections by a razor-thin margin.
Rising political temperatures in Zambia, a landlocked and impoverished southern African nation, has come against the backdrop of an economy hobbled by low commodity prices, mine closures, rising unemployment, power shortages, a widening budget deficit and diminishing foreign-currency reserves.
The political turbulence, however, does not appear to have closed the taps of international finance or aid. The presidency said on Tuesday Zambia was on the verge of a possible $1.2 billion program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), saying it was expected to be sealed by the end of April.
Reporting by Chris Mfula; Writing by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Alison Williams and Angus MacSwan