Tsvangirai aides on treason charge for 'Mugabe plot'

Opposition officials dismiss 'contrived' allegations that they planned assassination, as food shortages threaten millions with starvation
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The Independent Online

Two more senior members of the opposition in Zimbabwe were charged with treason yesterday over an alleged plot to assassinate President Robert Mugabe, heightening tension ahead of elections next month.

The secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, Welshman Ncube, and the shadow minister for agriculture, Renson Gasela, were charged and then released a day after the party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was charged with treason and released.

The charges arise from a documentary broadcast on Australia's SBS Television on 13 February which alleged that Mr Tsvangirai discussed a plan to kill Mr Mugabe with a Canadian company at a meeting in Montreal in December.

All three deny the charges, which Mr Tsvangirai dismissed as "contrived". He added that the presidential elections on 9 and 10 March could not be free or fair, but that he would not boycott the poll because he had the mandate of the people. "We are determined to win this election," Mr Tsvangirai said.

He added: "In the event of a stolen election by Mugabe we will consider the election illegitimate because it can never be free or fair. If the MDC wins despite the lack of freedom or fairness it will only be because the people of Zimbabwe refuse to bow down to terror or give in to their fear."

With only 10 days remaining before Zimbabweans go to the polls in the first real challenge to Mr Mugabe's 22-year rule, Mr Tsvangirai said the observers had an onerous task ahead of them in view of the violence that has marred the campaign. He said: "I believe it is the observers' responsibility to demand that Mugabe disband the youth brigades and terrorist camps he has established around the country. These people are trained, sustained and fed by the state and they are told where and when to act. This is state-sponsored violence."

Mr Tsvangirai told reporters that since 10 January the police had disrupted or cancelled at short notice 79 MDC rallies. "This happened even though we give two weeks' notice before each rally and get permission beforehand," he said.

Two MDC rallies planned for this weekend in Harare and Bulawayo have been cancelled by the police. "They say Mugabe wants to hold rallies at the same venues and on the same dates," said Mr Tsvangirai.

"It would have been more civilised to negotiate, to say, you hold yours on Saturday and we'll hold the Zanu-PF rally on Sunday."

Lovemore Madhuku, a University of Zimbabwe law professor and chairman of Zimbabwe's National Constitutional Assembly, said the arrests were aimed at creating a sense of hopelessness. "The message they are trying to send to the voters is that they should not even bother supporting the MDC because their leaders are going to be jailed. Unfortunately, we have a number of illiterate and gullible voters who will buy into this propaganda," he said.

State-controlled television and radio, the only source of news for most of Zimbabwe's mainly rural population, has presented Mr Mugabe as a liberation hero and Mr Tsvangirai as a "terrorist" and a "tea boy" for the country's whites and for European powers.

Andrew Moyse, co-ordinator of Zimbabwe's Media Monitoring Project, said that in a "tidal wave of propaganda", the state media had given nearly non-stop coverage to the assassination claims since they first surfaced two weeks ago. Opposition denials had been given only a few seconds of airtime.

"For people who don't have alternative sources of information, like the rural folk, they are likely to tend to think there is some grain of truth [in the charges]," Mr Moyse said.

A political scientist, Masipula Sithole, said the arrests were a sign of Mr Mugabe's desperation. He said: "The man has lost it. He is desperate to eliminate all electoral confidence in the opposition."