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Zambia opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema released from prison, treason charges dropped

Hakainde Hichilema had been charged with treason for failing to give way to President Lungu's motorcade. Once a stable democracy, Zambia now risks becoming increasingly authoritarian.

The opposition leader was released from prison on Wednesday after the state prosecutor dropped treason charges against him and five associates.

The charges were dropped just moments before Hichilema's trial in Lusaka was scheduled to begin. The businessman-turned-politician had been charged with treason for failing to give way to President Edgar Lungu's motorcade and allegedly putting the president's life at risk.

Read more: Zambia's once proud democracy faces litmus test

"The DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) has decided to terminate these proceedings by virtue of her constitutional powers," said high court judge Charles Chanda. "Therefore, you're hereby discharged."

The opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) confirmed the news in a tweet.

Hichilema and his five co-defendants denied the treason charges during Monday's plea hearing, which saw police in riot gear seal off the court precinct as hundreds of UPND supporters waited outside.

Months in custody

Hichilema had been in police custody since April after more than 100 armed police officers surrounded his home, firing tear gas into his residence before detaining him and his aides.

The opposition leader claimed he was assaulted by police officers during his arrest and suffered extensive mistreatment while in detention.

Treason is a nonbailable offense that carries a minimum 15-year prison sentence and a maximum sentence of death.

Rights group Amnesty International decried Hichilema's arrest and treason charges, writing that he and the five other accused were "victims of longstanding persecution" from President Lungu's Patriotic Front party and faced charges seeking to "harass and intimidate."

Sambia Hakainde Hichilema (Getty Images/AFP/D. Salim)

Hakainde Hichilema waves to supporters as he is escorted back to prison following an April hearing.

Zambia's authoritarian turn

While Zambia has remained relatively stable since its first multiparty election in 1991, last year's presidential election, which saw Lungu narrowly defeat Hichilema, was marked by allegations of vote-rigging and clashes between opposing supporters.

Read more: Zambia: Foreign investment a thorny issue

Hichilema has accused the president of becoming an increasingly authoritarian ruler. In March, 48 UPND parliamentarians were suspended after they boycotted a Lungu address. Then, last month, Lungu invoked emergency powers, increasing police powers, after he blamed the opposition for allegedly carrying out arson attacks.

The president hasn't minced words over his intent to consolidate his power, warning the opposition and political activists during the election campaign that "if they push me against the wall, I will sacrifice democracy for peace."

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dm/kms (AFP, Reuters)

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