Mugabe was once my hero, opposition leader tells court

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Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwe opposition leader, denied charges yesterday of plotting to kill President Robert Mugabe, a man he said he once regarded as "a hero".

Taking the witness stand for the first time since going on trial for treason nearly a year ago, Mr Tsvangirai told a packed Harare court that he would not wish to see Mr Mugabe removed from power in an assassination.

The case against Mr Tsvangirai, who faces the death penalty if convicted, is based on a video tape, made by a Canadian-based political consultant, in which Mr Tsvangirai allegedly discusses Mr Mugabe's "elimination" shortly before the 2002 presidential election.

Mr Tsvangirai has accused Mr Mugabe's state security agents of tampering with the video to frame him. The resumption of proceedings against him has dampened hopes of any political negotiations between the ruling party and Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Mr Tsvangirai told the court he had revered Mr Mugabe when the Zimbabwe leader led his forces in ousting the former apartheid regime of Ian Smith. "I regarded Mr Mugabe as my hero, and the hero of the liberation struggle", he said.

Asked if he ever plotted to kill Mr Mugabe or overthrow his government, he replied: "No, my Lord." He said after independence in 1980, he joined the ruling party and held the rank of "political commissar" in the party branch at a small mine he worked at in central Zimbabwe. But he became disillusioned and let his membership lapse in 1985 when the government introduced legislation that proscribed free trade union activity. He later became secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), which he subsequently used as a launch pad for his political career amid a groundswell of opposition to the ruling party.

His opposition party, MDC, which grew out of a number of civic groups, narrowly lost to Mr Mugabe's Zanu PF in the June 2000 parliamentary elections. It also came close to defeating him in the presidential elections two years later. Mr Tsvangirai was accused of plotting to kill Mr Mugabe and seize power violently just before the presidential election.

Much of the state's evidence against Mr Tsvangirai rests on the barely audible videotape, secretly recorded by Ari Ben Menashe. Mr Tsvangirai insists Mr Ben Menashe was hired by the Mugabe government to "entrap" him and dismissed the Israeli-born political consultant as a "chronic liar and charlatan".

George Bizos, a South African lawyer representing Mr Tsvangirai, told the court that he was calling his witness to give evidence in an effort to conclude the trial as swiftly as possible. Mr Bizos represented Nelson Mandela during the Rivonia trial 40 years ago and is credited with saving the former South African President from the gallows. But he faces a daunting task this time as Mr Mugabe has done all he can to muzzle the judiciary and stuff it with loyalist judges.

Two other senior MDC members, Welshman Ncube and Renson Gasela, were originally charged with Mr Tsvangirai but were acquitted in September due to lack of evidence.