The Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) President should not face prosecution should he leave office, said Moise Katumbi, the former governor of the Katanga province and the man widely expected to succeed Joseph Kabila. Katumbi - who is yet to announce his intention to run for president - did not elaborate on the possible charges that Kabila could face.

The president has been accused of looting billions of dollars of the DRC's wealth. Human rights groups say his allies and security forces have been behind a number of violations, including the murder and abductions of political opponents.

Kabila has ruled the mineral-rich country since 2001 and is constitutionally required to leave office next year as per the DRC's two-term limit. Katumbi's comments are likely to be interpreted as an attempt to convince Kabila to leave office when his mandate expires.

Katumbi said that the subject of immunity for Kabila had been discussed with opposition leaders, Etienne Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe during a recent trip to Europe. Speaking to Reuters from his home in Katanga's capital, Lubumbashi, Katumbi said: "I ... discussed with them that we would need to see how to protect the ex-head of state." He added: "Because, you know, I would not want to have a Congo where a president will be pursued after his mandate."

Kabila has been accused of trying to breach the constitution by extending his rule into a third term. Critics say this has been done through a number of measures, such as instituting an unrealistic election calendar, deferring the disbursement of funds to the country's Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) and most recently, the suggestion to delay presidential elections by up to four years in order to revise voter rolls and raise funds. Government spokesman, Lambert Mende has always maintained that the president intends to respect the constitution.

Should Kabila step down next year following free and fair elections, the DRC will have its first peaceful transition of power after 130 years of turbulence marked by private and state colonisation, dictatorship, exploitation of its mineral riches and regional and global destabilisation of the country. Leaving office voluntarily 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."

Mende shrugged 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 has said that his primary objective is the "publication of a revised election calendar" to facilitate elections. "I am a pragmatic man, if there is no calendar there will be no election," he commented.