By Aaron Ross
LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila should be granted immunity from prosecution after he leaves office, said Moise Katumbi, the popular former governor widely considered the frontrunner to replace him.
The statement by Katumbi is likely to be viewed as an attempt to convince Kabila to leave office when his second and final elected term ends next year.
Katumbi, who led the mining province of Katanga, did not specify what charges Kabila, who has ruled Africa's top copper producer for nearly 15 years, could potentially face.
In an interview with Reuters at his home in the mining hub of Lubumbashi, Katumbi said he had discussed the subject of immunity for Kabila with fellow opposition figures Etienne Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe during a recent visit to Europe.
"I ... discussed with them that we would need to see how to protect the ex-head of state," he said on Tuesday. "Because, you know, I would not want to have a Congo where a president will be pursued after his mandate."
Critics accuse Kabila of seeking to defy a constitutional term limit and cling to power, as other African leaders have done.
Katumbi urged the president to step down in 2016 and allow the Central African giant to experience its first peaceful transition of power. That would make Kabila the "father of Congolese democracy".
"If President Kabila leaves within the constitutional timeframe, he will be a president who is very appreciated by the Congolese people," Katumbi said. "And I believe he can return after five years. The constitution permits a president to leave and return."
ALLY TURNED OPPONENT
Allies of Kabila have recently suggested delaying the presidential election by up to four years in order to clean up voter rolls and raise financing.
Kabila has refused to comment publicly on his political future, though a spokesman has said he intends to respect the constitution.
A longtime Kabila ally, Katumbi quit the ruling party and resigned as Katanga's governor in September over what he said were the government's attempts to violate the constitution and its increasingly violent repression of the opposition.
Human rights groups have criticized Kabila's allies and security forces of rights violations including murders and kidnappings of political opponents.
About 40 people were killed in January when violent demonstrations erupted in several cities against a proposed revision of the election code, which the opposition said was a pretext to delay elections.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende laughed off Katumbi's comments on immunity for Kabila.
"No one has asked (Kabila) about that and it's not a priority," he said. "The president has nothing to answer for. It would be better that Katumbi worry about himself."
Katumbi was among officials targeted by Kabila's anti-corruption czar in a criminal complaint filed with the public prosecutor in June for fraud and corruption, according to French media reports.
The government also pressed charges of money laundering against Katumbi in Belgium and Britain in 2010. The case, which the ex-governor claimed was politically motivated, was later dismissed.
(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Joe Bavier and Catherine Evans)