Zambia denies detained opposition leader barred access to lawyers

LUSAKA, April 13 (Reuters) – Zambian police denied on Thursday that opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema had been refused access to his lawyers and family since his arrest this week but his attorney insisted this was the case in an intensifying political crisis.

Hichilema was arrested on Tuesday and charged with treason for allegedly obstructing President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade, raising the political temperature in Africa’s No. 2 copper producing country.

Relations between government and opposition have been tense since August, when Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) party beat Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) in a vote the opposition says was rigged.

A hearing is to be held on Tuesday to determine if Hichilema’s detention is legal, the UPND said.

The two men are old rivals and Lungu has beaten Hichilema, an economist and wealthy businessman who goes by “HH”, narrowly in two presidential elections, including the one last year by a razor-thin margin.

“We have not blocked lawyers and Mr Hichilema’s members of the family from visiting him because that is his constitutional right,” police spokeswoman Esther Mwaata-Katongo said, responding to a UPND accusation.

Hichilema’s lawyer Jack Mwiimbu said he had seen his client on Wednesday but had since been prevented from visiting him.

“There are instructions for him not to be seen by anybody without authority from police headquarters. We have therefore started processing court papers. We want the court to compel the police to allow us to see our client,” Mwiimbu told Reuters.

Mwiimbu also said Hichilema had complained on Wednesday of feeling unwell after police fired tear gas into his house when he was arrested.

The European Union called for calm and analysts said Zambia’s reputation was at stake over the saga.

“Political tensions in Zambia have increased over the past weeks and in particular with the events surrounding the arrest of … Hichilema,” the EU said in a statement.

Political analyst Andrew Ntewewe of the non-governmental organisation Young African Leaders’ Initiative said the police had to show professionalism in how they were handling the case.

“Suspects have rights even when in police custody. HH must quickly be taken to court. The president must also show statesmanship, magnanimity and leadership so that the country’s reputation is not dented,” Ntewewe told Reuters.

On Saturday, Lungu passed through Mongu, 500 km (300 miles) west of the capital Lusaka, and his motorcade was obstructed because Hichilema refused to give way, police said.

Zambia’s economy has been depressed for years by low commodity prices, mine closures, rising unemployment, power shortages and soaring food prices – all of which Hichilema blames on mismanagement by Lungu.

But Lungu, whose government has been talking to the International Monetary Fund about financial aid to help plug its budget deficit, has said he is doing his best to wean the economy off its over-reliance on copper.