Zimbabwe opposition leader found innocent in treason trial

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Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was found innocent on treason charges today that his party maintained all along were a bid by the government to frame him.

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was found innocent on treason charges today that his party maintained all along were a bid by the government to frame him.

The ruling came as a surprise, because of the widespread expectation that President Robert Mugabe would be able to impose his will on a court system that has been criticised as political and corrupt.

Judge Paddington Garwe, ruling in the Harare High Court, pronounced the Movement for Democratic Change leader innocent in a long awaited judgment in the downtown colonial–style courthouse.

The charges stemmed from state accusations Tsvangirai plotted to kill Mugabe with the help of a Canada–based political consultant.

The charges were based on a grainy 4 1/2 hour video recorded by hidden cameras during a meeting between Tsvangirai and political consultant Ari Ben Menashe in Montreal on December 4, 2001.

During his year-long trial that ended on February 26, Tsvangirai's defence attorneys said the tape had been doctored to implicate him in a plot to murder Mugabe and stage a military coup to seize power.

Tsvangirai denied involvement in any such plot but conceded he mentioned the "elimination" of Mugabe during discussions with Ben Menashe in reference only to Mugabe's possible defeat in upcoming 2002 presidential polls and the possible formation of a new government.

Before the verdict today, the opposition party described the treason case against its leader as "democracy on trial" under Mugabe's repressive rule.

Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi, in charge of the police, said police reinforcements were being deployed outside the courthouse to prevent any unrest surrounding the verdict.

He said security and court officials also were restricting access to the court by anticipated crowds.

Testimony in the nation's longest trial – also one of its most bizarre – covered a broad sweep of intrigue, from the secretly recorded meeting to tampering with evidence and even an alleged plan by former US President Bill Clinton, to be bankrolled by the Jewish community in the United States, to persuade Mugabe to leave office.

Ben Menashe claimed he had been tasked by the Clinton administration to negotiate a deal for Mugabe's retirement.

State prosecutors themselves withdrew allegations earlier in the trial that Tsvangirai spoke with Ben Menashe of the "murder" and "assassination" of Mugabe after the words could not be found on the secretly recorded tape.

Defence attorney George Bizos of South Africa, a human rights lawyer and long-time legal advisor to former South African President Nelson Mandela, had submitted evidence that Ben Menashe was already working for the Zimbabwe government's security agency on an operation to discredit the burgeoning opposition in Zimbabwe when Tsvangirai visited him in Montreal.

He said Tsvangirai had only sought the consultant's help to raise funds and canvass for support for the Zimbabwe opposition in the United States and Canada.

The tape of their meeting was out of focus and barely audible.

Tsvangirai, freed on bail, had to surrender his passport after being charged two weeks before he ran against Mugabe in March 2002 presidential polls. He narrowly lost the election, which independent observers said was rigged.

His political activities were sharply curtailed by his lengthy appearances in the dock.

Ben Menashe, 52, who claims to have been a former Israeli intelligence agent and a security adviser to the Israeli prime minister, was acquitted by a US federal jury in 1990 of charges he illegally arranged a US$36 million deal to sell US–made military cargo planes to Iran in exchange for the release of four American hostages in the Middle East.

Israel denied he was connected to intelligence work but said he served for a brief period as a junior clerk in its civil service.

Tsvangirai's defence team said Ben Menashe's frequently lied under oath while giving his evidence in order to cover up his efforts for the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organization to entrap the opposition leader.

Evidence in the trial showed Ben Menashe received US$ 650,000 from the Zimbabwe intelligence service.

Chief state prosecutor Bharat Patel, asking for a conviction at the conclusion of the trial in February, said there was still enough evidence to proving Tsvangirai plotted Mugabe's assassination.