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Zambian opposition leaders called on Tuesday for a suspension of their country from the Commonwealth, accusing President Michael Sata of stifling democracy.
The leaders of several opposition parties and civil society groups gathered in Johannesburg to make the call, claiming it was now impossible for them to operate normally in Zambia.
They called “for the provisional suspension of Zambia from the Commonwealth pending investigation” into rights abuses.
Several of those present, including Nevers Mumba and Hakainde Hichilema, have recently been arrested and granted bail on graft and other charges.
“The very fact that we were not able to hold this event in Lusaka gives you an indication of the levels of intolerance in Zambia,” said Sakwiba Sikota, leader of the United Liberal Party.
Nigeria, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Fiji have previously been expelled from the 54-nation bloc.
After Sata's election in September 2011, Zambia won praise for the peaceful transition of power.
But opposition leaders have since accused Sata's government of waging an anti-democratic crackdown on them and trying to turn the country into a “one-party dictatorial state”.
“These assaults on the opposition, the imprisonment, the harassment... is all aimed at ensuring that the opposition is removed from the country,” said Mumba, whose party handed over power to Sata's Patriotic Front after the 2011 elections.
Opposition parties are frequently denied permission to hold rallies.
The opposition leaders also vowed to also take their case to the African Union and the South African Development Community.
“The country is under assault, our democracy is under assault,” Mumba said, adding that the opposition leaders wanted to give the international community an “early warning.”
“The signs on the ground are very similar to what happened in Uganda with Idi Amin in terms of how the president and government is managing the opposition,” he said.
But the government rejected the accusations of rights violations and calls for the copper-rich country to be booted out of the grouping of mainly former British colonies.
“There is no truth in what they are saying. They are being childish and silly,” chief government spokesman Kennedy Sakeni told AFP in Lusaka.
“These claims must be dismissed,” he said.
The opposition leaders also said they were disturbed about the situation in the western region of the country, where members of a secessionist movement pushing for the creation of a separate Barotseland have reportedly been arrested and subjected to long periods of interrogations.
The opposition groups, under the Coalition for the Defence of Democracy, said Zambia's Catholic bishops also voiced concern in a letter last month about the political environment in the country. - Sapa-AFP