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Tensions rise in Zimbabwe over treason trial

Tensions are rising in Zimbabwe as the country's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, prepares to fight a possible death penalty for treason in an alleged plot to kill President Robert Mugabe.

Mr Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), begins his defence tomorrow in Harare's High Court after Zimbabwe's Judge President, Paddington Garwe, ruled that he had a case to answer. This will be the first time that he has been in the dock since his arrest in February last year.

Many have dismissed the charges as trumped up by Mr Mugabe's regime to destroy the staunchest opponent it has faced since independence from Britain in 1980. The evidence against the MDC leader centres on a grainy video of a meeting he held in Montreal with a Canadian-based Israeli political consultant, Ari Ben-Menashe, at which the alleged plot was discussed. But George Bizos, Mr Tsvangirai's lawyer, argues that the tape was blatantly tampered with to frame his client.

"There is no indication in the transcript as to how the assassination would take place and by whom," said Mr Bizos, a prominent South African lawyer who represented Nelson Mandela at his treason trial 40 years ago. He points out the words "assassination", "kill", or "murder" are never used.

Mr Ben-Menashe, the prosecution's main witness who was once dismissed by the Jerusalem Post as "delusional and a chronic liar", has already finished giving his evidence, in which he claimed Britain backed the plot. He admitted being paid $600,000 (£355,000) for work as a political consultant to the government, money Mr Bizos argues was for framing Mr Tsvangirai.

The trial coincides with worsening political and economic crises in Zimbabwe, with inflation now at nearly 500 per cent. The Daily News, the country's only independent paper, was back on the streets yesterday after a ban was overturned, but a police raid immediately shut it down again.

* Exiled Zimbabweans marched through central London yesterday in protest against Mr Mugabe's regime.