Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-ZAMBIA: Coup Plotters Appear in Court

Lewis Mwanangombe

LUSAKA, Feb 25 1998 (IPS) - Four months after junior Zambian army officers staged an abortive coup d’etat against the rule of President Frederick Chiluba, the soldiers and civilian politicians linked to the putsch Wednesday appeared in court.

The formidable group of 74, who appeared before magistrate Getrude Chawatama, included a large force of junior army officers, their superiors, and the leader of the opposition Zambia Democratic Congress (ZDC), Dean Mung’omba. Seventy-six persons are being tried for the attempted coup, but two were absent from court Wednesday due to ill health.

The alleged coup plotters, mostly in their early 30’s, are accused of planning to overthrow the Zambian government by unlawful means.

Opposition ZDC leader Mung’omba, Captain Jackson Chiti, Major Billex Mutale, Major Bellington Nkoma and Baldwin Manase were charged with the overt act of conspiring to overthrow the Zambian government between July 1, 1995 and October 28, 1997.

Captain Chiti also was specifically charged with the offence of mobilising 69 soldiers from different bases of the Zambian Army and commandeering 11 armoured vehicles for the purpose of forming an illegal army to overthrow the Zambian government.

Eighteen of those who appeared in court Wednesday also were charged with the offence of entering the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation by the use of force so as to allow Captain Steven Lungu to announce developments of the coup, staged last October.

Captain Lungu, who broadcasted the coup attempt to Zambians on October 28, 1997 under the nom-de-guerre of Captain Solo, was absent from court due to poor health.

He is detained in Kamfinsa Prison outside the Zambian city of Kitwe on the Copperbelt, and since his detention, he has been in and out of hospital suffering from malaria. Lungu also is reported to be a long standing tuberculosis patient.

Security was tight at the court where razor wire fencing has been installed, together with stout metal grills on windows and doors.

The Supreme Court has also been modernised with new air conditioning units and broadcast equipment — microphones and speakers — for the benefit of so many accused persons. Chiluba’s government also has purchased new blue, sealed trucks to transport the coup plotters to and from prison.

Magistrate Chawatama Wednesday adjourned the case to Mar. 11 for mention, before she can commit the accused to the High Court for trial. All the accused persons were remanded into custody.

Under Zambian law, even serious cases like treason, murder and aggravated robbery have to start from a magistrate’s court as a formality, before they are transferred to the High Court for trial.

The case promises to be a very difficult one for government prosecutors. Some of the accused soldiers have argued that they acted under rigid military orders which could not be defied.

Lined up for the defence also is a team of lawyers recognised as some of Zambia’s best legal minds. These include respected counsel Edward Shamwana, immediate past president of the Law Association of Zambia, Sakwiba Sikota, the former University of Zambia Dean of the School of Law, Patrick Mvunga, and female lawyers Nellie Mutti and Mwangala Zaloumis.

The two women are part of the exclusive team of lawyers defending former President Kenneth Kaunda on his particular charge of ‘misprision of treason’, or in a layman’s language, ‘concealment of knowledge of the possible commission of treason.’

Besides the soldiers, whose ranks range from private to major, there is also a sprinkling of civilian politicians from the United National Independence Party, the Zambia Democratic Congress and from the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy.

The MMD’s women’s national chairperson, Mirriam Mbololwa Wina, is detained in the midlands town of Kabwe in connection with the October coup attempt. She has not been charged or brought to court.

Government prosecutors told Magistrate Chawatama that they wanted all the 76 accused persons to be tried as a group. But this raised immediate objections from the defence lawyers with Shamwana arguing that this was impossible, and even if it were, the accused would not receive a fair trial.

After the short-lived coup d’etat was quickly crushed by loyalist troops, the government imposed a state of emergency, which was renewed last month to enable police to investigate the event fully.

Opposition political parties and non-governmental organisations Wednesday called on the government to lift the emergency regulations saying they served no further purpose, since all known suspects had now appeared in court.

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