Zambia opposition defies president's warning

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LUSAKA, Oct 11 (Reuters) Zambia's main opposition today defied President Levy Mwanawasa's warning that they would face treason charges if they reject his plans to amend the constitution, heightening political tensions.

''The entire leadership of the Patriotic Front is ready to be arrested. We are ready to go to prison if we have to achieve what the people of Zambia want,'' said party leader Michael Sata, who Mwanawasa narrowly defeated in a 2006 presidential election.

In 2004, Zambia launched a constitution review commission that toured the country collecting views. It recommended that the constitution should be adopted by an assembly of eminent people before being passed by parliament.

But leaders of political parties, including the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), have agreed instead to present a bill to parliament to amend only selected parts of the constitution, a move rejected by the opposition.

''Now we have proven that he doesn't mean well, he does not want people to get a good constitution. He is hiding in this national fraud,'' Sata told journalists.

Analysts say Mwanwasa's tough stand raised questions over Zambia's democratic credentials.

ECONOMIC SUCCESS ''It does not amount to treason to criticise a law in Zambia because people have a right to express their opinion and they also have a right of assembly,'' said Jotham Momba, a political science lecturer at the University of Zambia.

''It doesn't mean those who don't agree with the process are committing treason. He (Mwanawasa) thinks most people have come on board and he can now use (coercion) to get others in,'' Momba said.

Critics accuse his government of failing to give ordinary Zambians a say in drafting a new constitution, a process that had been scheduled to start in August and one that will take a year to complete.

Leonard Hikaumba, head of the powerful Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), said Mwanawasa would not attain the objective by ''making a good constitution through threats''.

''If he perpetuates this kind of approach, he will not attain the objective of having a generally acceptable constitution,'' Hikaumba said.

Mwanawasa, who built his reputation as a lawyer for the former opposition, has made Zambia a rare African economic success story.

But his policies have come under scrutiny.

Despite securing a huge debt relief package and major investments from China and India, Mwanawasa has battled a growing public perception that he has done little to benefit most of Zambia's 11.5 million people.

Reuters AE GC1904

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