Mugabe general 'killed in blaze' cannot be exhumed, says court

Mystery surrounds death of Vice-President's MP husband in suspicious fire at home

Testimony at an inquest into the death of one of Zimbabwe's most powerful men has ended with the court refusing appeals from his family for his body to be exhumed. The retired General Solomon Mujuru died in a fire at his home last year but a court hearing into his death has done little to lift suspicions that he was murdered by political rivals.

The inquest is being watched for signs of divisions in Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party, where General Mujuru's wife, Joyce, was among the leading candidates to replace the veteran President. With the backing of her husband's fortune – much of it in diamonds and farms seized from white owners – Mrs Mujuru has been Vice-President for the past eight years.

For much of that time the Mujurus have been locked in battle with the Defence Minister, Emerson Mnangagwa, to be seen as successors to Mr Mugabe. The sudden death of the man who led Mr Mugabe's forces during the guerrilla war against the white rulers of Rhodesia has created fear and confusion among the small elite who have ruled the country since independence.

Mr Mugabe has just returned from an African Union summit where he failed to win support for plans to hold an election this year without implementing any of the reforms called for in the deal that set up Zimbabwe's power-sharing government.

Despite retiring from politics, Mr Mujuru, who was given a state funeral last August, had strong support in the ruling party and was one of Mr Mugabe's potential rivals.

No date has been given for a verdict in the inquest but questions have been raised over its conduct. The Mujuru family criticised the court's decision to appoint a Cuban doctor who does not speak English and arrived in Zimbabwe seven weeks ago to perform the autopsy. They appealed for the body to be exhumed so their medical expert from South Africa could examine it.

In a translation of his testimony, Dr Gabriel Alvero said the deceased man appeared to have died from smoke inhalation but admitted that "considering the state of the body", his findings could only be inconclusive.

Thakor Kewada, the Mujurus' lawyer, said Dr Alvero was not registered to practice in Zimbabwe and that a South African pathologist, Reggie Perumal, should be allowed to examine the remains. "I believe he should give evidence but most importantly after examining the body and conducting a proper autopsy," said Mr Kewada.

The inquest, which has stirred huge interest ahead of the elections later this year, painted a mysterious picture of the last hours of one of the country's most feared men. After stopping for a drink at a hotel bar near his home in Beatrice, outside the capital Harare, the 66-year-old reportedly took nearly three-quarters of an hour to make the 10-minute journey home.

Witnesses told the court they heard gunshots before flames were seen at his farmhouse. Rosemary Shoti, a maid, said General Mujuru, 62, left groceries and his mobile phone in his car, something he had never done before.

Adding to suspicion was testimony that a fire engine sent to the scene had no water in it and that a police unit nearby had a broken radio.

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