Trial in Bennett case that strained Zimbabwe’s troubled coalition government gets under way

By Angus Shaw, AP
Monday, November 9, 2009

Trial for top Zimbabwean PM’s aide gets under way

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Prosecutors sought to throw out testimony that evidence against a top prime minister’s aide was obtained through torture as the trial that has strained Zimbabwe’s troubled coalition government began Monday.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has called for the “the malicious prosecution” of aide Roy Bennett to stop and temporarily withdrew from the unity government last month, citing Bennett’s case as well as accusations of human rights abuses by militants and security forces loyal to longtime President Robert Mugabe.

Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party says hard-liners in Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party are using the courts to pursue Bennett in order to undermine the coalition. ZANU-PF leaders deny the accusations, saying it should be left to the judge to determine the merits of Bennett’s case.

The trial was adjourned Monday after the attorney general appealed to Judge Chinembri Bhunu to bar the defense arguments. Bhunu scheduled the next hearing for Wednesday to rule on the prosecution’s request.

Bennett’s lawyers say weapons dealer Peter Michael Hitschmann, who is the main prosecution witness, was not only tortured but also did not implicate Bennett during his own trial.

Hitschmann was arrested in 2006 and initially accused of plotting to assassinate Mugabe. Bennett had not been linked to the case until his arrest in February.

Hitschmann was cleared on charges of treason and “possessing weapons for the purpose of terrorism,” the same charges Bennett faces that carry a possible death sentence or life imprisonment if convicted. Hitschmann spent 2½ years in jail on lesser charges of possessing illegal weapons.

Attorney General Johannes Tomana, whose appearance for the prosecution underlined the importance the government has placed on the case, said the defense outline breached court regulations.

Defense attorney Beatrice Mtetwa said that the judge in Hitschmann’s trial acknowledged the dealer had been tortured into making a false confession, and Mtetwa added that the confession did not implicate Bennett.

Hitschmann now has “disowned” the confession and the state had based its case “on evidence that does not exist,” Mtetwa said. Mtetwa asked the judge to rule Hitschmann was inadmissible as a witness.

Bennett “cannot have a fair trial if false, inadmissible and no existent evidence is smuggled into the court,” she said.

Mtetwa demanded Tomana be censured for placing before the court “demonstrably false information.”

Last week, a lawyer for Hitschmann prepared an affidavit for the court saying he had no evidence to give against Bennett was arrested by security agents for allegedly attempting to pervert the course of justice, she said. The attorney was released on bail.

Tsvangirai had nominated Bennett to be deputy agriculture minister. Bennett, 52, also is treasurer of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.

Tsvangirai withdrew from the nine-month-old coalition government last month, accusing Mugabe of treating him like a subordinate and not a coalition partner.

After a three-week boycott, Tsvangirai announced Thursday he was returning to the coalition, saying he was persuaded to relent following South Africa’s pledge to monitor the power-sharing deal.

South Africa and other neighboring countries pushed Mugabe and Tsvangirai to form their unity government in February following a series of inconclusive elections marred by violence blamed on Mugabe’s supporters.

Also Monday, trade union leaders said the president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and four other top officials were arrested at a union meeting in Victoria Falls a day earlier. They were still being held Monday but had not been charged, according to union officials who said the allegations could be holding a meeting without notifying police.

Tsvangirai, a former Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general, has his base in the labor movement and the arrests were likely to be seen as another attempt to Mugabe loyalists to intimidate him.

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