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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK

World: Africa

Kaunda treason charges dropped

Kaunda supporters at an earlier hearing

The trial of the former Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, has been abandoned minutes after it opened in the capital, Lusaka.

Mr Kaunda, originally facing charges relating to treason, walked free from the court along with one of his senior bodyguards, who was facing similar charges.

Attorney General Bonaventure Mutale told the judge presiding over the case that the state entered a plea of "nolle prosequi" - the legal term for "no prosecution."

"This means the state doesn't wish to proceed further. You are discharged so you are free men," the judge told Mr Kaunda and his bodyguard.

As he walked from the court, Kenneth Kaunda waved to hundreds of cheering supporters and said: "It's great, it's great."

Big trial expected

Mr Kaunda led Zambia for 27 years from independence until he was ousted by Frederick Chiluba in multiparty elections in 1991.

Known as the "Father of the Nation", the 74-year-old former president was charged with knowing about preparations for a military coup last October but failing to inform the Zambian authorities.

About 80 other people, charged with either directly participating in the coup attempt or concealing knowledge of it, remain on trial.

The hearing, with more than 150 witnesses listed, was set to be the biggest treason trial in Zambia's history.

Lawyers acting for Mr Kaunda had maintained hopes throughout the legal process that the case against him would be dropped.

Coup crushed

The badly organised coup attempt was quickly crushed by forces of the Zambian Army.

In the aftermath, the government arrested scores of opposition activists.

Mr Kaunda was detained in December and subsequently moved from jail to house arrest where he has spent almost six months.

Government opponents regarded his trial as a crude attempt to silence opposition political leaders at a time when they were gaining popular support.

High unemployment and economic stagnation in Zambia has led to widespread disillusion among the voting public who ended Mr Kaunda's 27 years in power at multi-party elections in 1991.

His successor, President Chiluba, went on to win a second term in office in 1996, but only after passing a law banning Mr Kaunda from standing in the elections.

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