Opposition leader cleared of treason by Zimbabwe court

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Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, was acquitted of treason by the High Court in Harare yesterday.

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, was acquitted of treason by the High Court in Harare yesterday.

The ruling surprised Mr Tsvangirai, who faced the death penalty if convicted. He said: "This whole trial was political, and although I had hoped for the best, I cannot hide that I had largely feared the worst."

The treason charge arose from an alleged plot by Mr Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), to kill President Robert Mugabe in 2002.

But High Court Judge President Paddington Garwe dismissed the case for lack of evidence. He said the state had failed to prove high treason beyond reasonable doubt.

Mr Tsvangirai's South African lawyer, George Bizos, described the ruling as "a victory for justice in Zimbabwe".

But Mr Tsvangirai is not yet off the hook because he faces a second treason charge over demonstrations against the President last year. The Zimbabwe government alleges Mr Tsvangirai called the demonstrations to remove Mr Mugabe's government from power unconstitutionally.

Yesterday's acquittal has none the less come as a huge relief for Mr Tsvangirai and his supporters who, pending the trial verdict, had been severely curtailed from organising any form of resistance against the government.

In the courtroom, Mr Tsvangirai's supporters swarmed around the smiling opposition leader after the verdict was announced, and broke into song and dance. Chaos reigned outsidewhere more than 20 MDC supporters were arrested as well as an Associated Press journalist Angus Shaw and two Harare photographers. Armed riot police fired tear gas at MDC supporters as they celebrated the judgment.

Police sealed all streets leading to the court before the judgment and mounted roadblocks on others. Zimbabwe air force planes circled the city as the judge prepared to announce his verdict. The Zimbabwe army had also been put on standby, largely in anticipation of chaos if Mr Tsvangirai had been convicted.

The MDC was quick to warn against regarding the acquittal as the arrival of a new dawn of independence for Zimbabwe's largely corrupt judiciary.

"The fact remains that this is a case which should not have gone to court in the first place," said MDC spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi. "There was not an iota of evidence on which any judge could have justified a conviction."

Mr Themba Nyathi said Mr Tsvangirai had been unfairly deprived of time he could have devoted to his party while attending the 18-month trial.

Mr Tsvangirai's first treason charge came just before the March 2002 presidential election when he was accused of hiring a Canadian-based political consultant, Ari Ben Menashe, in a "mission" to kill Mr Mugabe and stage a coup d'état.

Evidence against Mr Tsvangirai centred on a grainy video tape secretly recorded by Mr Ben Menashe at a Montreal meeting at which the opposition leader discussed Mr Mugabe's "elimination".

Mr Tsvangirai contended that the grainy video had been manipulated by Mr Ben Menashe to frame him. He said he had not used the word "elimination" in the tape to refer to assasinating Mr Mugabe as alleged by the state but he used it to refer to removing President Mugabe through the ballot box during the 2002 presidential election.

He said he had been lured to Mr Ben Menashe's offices by promises that the "consultant" would help the MDC raise money for campaigning in the election.

It emerged in court that Mr Ben Menashe was already on Mr Mugabe's payroll when he secretly recorded the video. He admitted receiving $650,000 (£360,000) for his work as a "consultant" for Mr Mugabe.

Mr Bizos, based his defence on discrediting Mr Ben Menashe as an unreliable witness. Mr Bizos described him as an "imported charlatan" and "dangerous liar" who could hardly believe his own lies.

Mr Ben Menashe, who was also described in a US Congressional report in the mid-1980s as a "talented liar", entertained the court with his theatrics during the trial and had to be cautioned by Judge Garwe on several occasions.

Judge Garwe seemed to share Mr Bizos's characterisation of Mr Ben Menashe. He described him as "rude, unreliable ... and contemptuous". The judge also dismissed the grainy video tape relied upon by the prosecution.

"There is no evidence either on the video tape or the audio tape that can be relied on," ruled Judge Garwe, adding that no actual request of an assasination was made on the tape.

Analysts said the acquittal would help energise the cowed MDC in the short term. Yet many warned that Mr Mugabe would not relent in his bid to damage Mr Tsvangirai, his first serious opponent since Zimbabwe received its independence from Britain in 1980.