Zambian opposition leaders granted bail | Africa | DW | 06.10.2016
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Zambian opposition leaders granted bail

Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema and his deputy Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba are out on bail after being arrested for holding an unauthorized meeting with supporters in late September.

Just two months after elections, Zambia is taking two politicians from the biggest opposition party, United Party for National Development (UPND), to court where they are being charged with sedition. On Thursday October 10, Hichilema announced on his Facebook page that he and his party deputy had been granted bail. He wrote that they would appear in court on October 19, 2016.

Sedition, or the incitement of people to violence, carries a prison sentence of up to seven years. "This is a scheme by the party in power to harass the opposition and instill fear in them," UPND spokesman Charles Kakoma told news agencies.

Late last month, Hichilema and Mwamba had given a speech to supporters in Mpongwe, a small town in Zambia's Copper Belt Province. The two leaders were arrested on October 5 in the nearby mining town of Luanshya, where they had travelled to meet fellow party members who are currently in police custody.

Following the arrests, 61 supporters of Hichilema and Mwamba were also detained, Charity Katanga, police commissioner for the Copper Belt Province confirmed. On Twitter, UPND shared pictures that show the protests which broke out after the arrest of the two politicians

Message through social media

Hichilema related his experiences in jail through his Facebook page, where he said that he and Mwamba were in "high spirits and not discouraged at all with this arrest.”

"As usual, heavily armed police have continued surrounding our cells as though we are criminals,” Hichilema wrote. "We have been informed [that] lots of our people were brutalized and detained yesterday, some wounded yet they have been denied medication."

 After the elections

The UPND lost the general elections held in August this year. Edgar Lungu's ruling Patriotic Front (PF) secured a majority with 50.35 percent of the votes and UPND came second with 47.67 percent. In late August, Hichilema and the UPND filed a lawsuit contesting the election results, citing media and voter intimidation, irregularities during the counting and a collusion between the ruling party and Zambia's electoral commission. The constitutional court, however, ruled in favor of the PF and Lungu was sworn in as president on September 13.

"The biggest challenge Lungu has is that he needs to unite the Zambian people," Lee Habasonda, president of Zambia’s Transparency International chapter, told DW. "The elections divided the country in two parts, one supporting the opposition and one supporting President Lungu. We think that he needs to reach out to the opposition, so that tension between ethnic and regional lines does not continue." The Lungu government, Habasonda added, appears to want control over all aspects of Zambian life, political, economic and in terms of security.

In the run up to the elections several media houses saw their licenses suspended and journalists taken in for questioning. In June, editors of "The Post” were arrested for allegedly not paying their taxes. According to local media, the country's broadcasting authorities have just lifted the suspension of Komboni Radio station. Deutsche Welle's partner station Muvi TV has also had its license reinstated.

Habasonda, however, noted that many critical media houses have reduced production and are no longer able to reach a wider audience. He fears that journalists and media houses will begin to censor themselves in fear of being shut down.

In addition to the political tension, Zambia also faces economic difficulties. Civil servants receved their salaries a month late and Zambians have experienced a sharp rise in prices of consumer goods since late 2015. The government is currently in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a new aid program to make up for it budget deficit. The economic downturn is linked to the fall in the price of metals, and difficulties in providing both fuel and electricity.

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