Lusaka (AFP) – More than 70 Zambian separatists are due in court on charges of treason Wednesday, in one of the country's biggest trials in recent years.
The defendants, mostly from the Lozi tribe, want Barotseland state in the country's impoverished west to secede from the copper-rich southern African country.
Police have arrested 83 people in a crackdown on secessionists, some while they were trying to hoist their own flag or singing songs denouncing the government.
Western province police chief Lombe Kamukoshi said only 72 of them will appear at Mongu High Court on Wednesday.
A treason conviction in Zambia could carry the death penalty.
Barotseland traditional leader and former deputy minister of education, Clement Sinyinda is among those facing treason charges, but will go to court on a later date.
"Sinyinda has been charged with the offence of treason felony and will appear in court on October 10, others will appear on October 2," Kamukoshi told AFP.
The secessionist bid dates back decades.
Barotseland was originally a protectorate of Britain, but entered into a deal at the end of colonial rule in 1964 to become a province of Zambia.
Under the agreement signed with independent Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, the region was supposed to have limited self-rule, but the Lozi say that agreement was never respected.
The issue had quietened down during the 1990s.
Last year, President Michael Sata ordered the military to clamp down on secession protests.
In January 2012, two people were killed during clashes with police in the town of Mongu, west of the capital Lusaka.
Human rights activist Brebner Changala blamed Sata for not doing enough to initiate talks and called on him to pardon those facing charges.
"It's a sad story that people are arrested and charged with treason," he said.
"Dialogue is the only way out... he should take the lead".
He added that the issue was capable of causing mayhem in the country.
"This issue should be handled with care, he (Sata) should not trivialise it," said Changala.
"This is a matter that can cause serious problems in this country,??? he said.
Last year, Sata said allowing the tribe to secede would cause other tribes to demand the same, in a country with 73 ethnic groups.