The political career of Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, is in jeopardy after a court ruled yesterday that his treason trial must proceed. His lawyers said the case against him was badly flawed and asked the High Court judge Paddington Garwe to acquit him of plotting to kill the President, Robert Mugabe, and seize power.
Judge Garwe, a Mugabe sympathiser, acquitted two of Mr Tsvangirai's co-accused, but said: "I'm satisfied there is no basis on which accused number one [Mr Tsvangirai] can be discharged ... Application for his discharge is dismissed."
Mr Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had been on trial since February and his lawyers had applied for a discharge after the case was wrapped up last month. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
If Mr Tsvangirai were to be convicted but given a sentence above six-month imprisonment, his political career would still be in ruins because he would no longer be eligible to stand for president under Zimbabwe's laws. He is also unable to effectively mobilise Zimbabweans against the Mugabe regime as long as the treason trial hangs over him.
Mr Tsvangirai, his secretary general, Welshman Ncube, and his secretary for lands, Renson Gasela, were arrested two weeks before the disputed March 2002 presidential election. They were charged with plotting to kill 79-year-old Mr Mugabe. Mr Tsvangirai, 52, and his colleagues vehemently denied the charges, saying they had no reason to kill the "irrelevant" Zimbabwean leader. Their party had been heavily tipped in opinion polls to beat Mr Mugabe by a wide margin in the election.
Judge Garwe dismissed charges against Mr Ncube and Mr Gasela for "lack of evidence". George Bizos, for the defence, who represented Nelson Mandela in his treason trial almost 40 years ago, had asked for the acquittal of all three, saying that the state had failed to prove a case. He said the charges against Mr Tsvangirai had been fabricated and were politically motivated to harm his career.
The state's case is based on a grainy, surreptitiously recorded video in which Mr Tsvangirai allegedly plotted to kill Mr Mugabe with the help of a self-styled political consultant called Ari Ben-Menashe, who is based in Montreal.
Mr Ben-Menashe has admitted being paid more than £300,000 for his work as a "political consultant" for the Zimbabwe government but denied the money was paid for framing Mr Tsvangirai.
In his ruling, Judge Garwe said there was no evidence the tape had been tampered with. It contains references to the "elimination" of Mr Mugabe, a transitional government and the role of the army under a new government. "The available evidence shows a prima facie case against him [Mr Tsvangirai]", the judge said.
The charges against Mr Tsvangirai are widely seen as part of an unrelenting government campaign to use the courts to destroy the opposition party by targeting its charismatic leader. His trial resumes in September.