Zimbabwean MP jailed for a year after shoving minister

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Zimbabwe's most persecuted white MP began a year of hard labour last night after parliament voted to jail him for shoving the Justice Minister during a debate over land seizures.

Zimbabwe's most persecuted white MP began a year of hard labour last night after parliament voted to jail him for shoving the Justice Minister during a debate over land seizures.

The ruling sparked outrage among lawyers and human rights groups who argued that in a normal criminal court of law, Roy Bennett would have faced a small fine.

Parliament voted 53-42 to jail Mr Bennett - one of three white Movement for Democratic Change MPs - for hitting Patrick Chinamasa during a debate in May. The government had moved to seize Mr Bennett's farm as part of President Robert Mugabe's programme to take white-owned properties for landless blacks.

The incident came after a heated debate during which Mr Chinamasa described Mr Bennett's white ancestors as "rapists", "murderers" and "thieves" who stole black-owned land. Zimbabwean law empowers parliament to impose sentences of up to two years in jail. It was the latest in a litany of abuses suffered by Mr Bennett, including the abduction and murder of his farm workers.

His lawyer, Arnold Tsunga, said Mr Bennett started serving his sentence last night. He had been arrested at Harare airport while trying to board a plane to South Africa.

The authorities accused him of trying to flee and slapped him with an extra charge of trying to obstruct the course of justice. Mr Bennett denied the charge, saying he had never contemplated fleeing but was on his way to South Africa to meet lawyers helping him recover money for coffee stolen from his farm by Mr Mugabe's supporters and supplied to a German coffee trader.

Mr Bennett's troubles were worsened by an earlier order by the Speaker of parliament, Emmerson Mnangagwa, banning the courts from hearing his application to have the sentence set aside. Mr Mnangagwa said the case should be concluded in terms of parliamentary procedures which insulated the house from judicial scrutiny. Mr Tsunga dismissed the Speaker's argument as outrageous.

Before parliament voted, Mr Bennett had been brought by police to appear before it and he had apologised for his conduct in charging at and pushing Mr Chinamasa. "I'm extremely sorry for the disturbances that I caused to this house. I apologise to you Mr Speaker, I apologise to Honourable Chinamasa," Mr Bennett said. But the apology failed to save him.

President Mugabe routinely accuses Mr Bennett of working with Tony Blair to try to topple the government.

The MDC issued a statement last night detailing all the abuses Mr Bennett has suffered including the forced seizure of his farm in eastern Zimbabwe by militant war veterans and the army in defiance of four court orders; the rape and murder of his workers; the theft of his crops and livestock; the destruction of his game farm; and the illegal arrests and beatings he has suffered.

Before his arrest yesterday, Mr Bennett had vowed never to flee Zimbabwe. "I would rather go to jail if it pleases this regime than flee my country into exile," he said.

Mr Tsunga had assembled a team of lawyers last night to try to save Mr Bennett by pursuing what is probably his last remedy - mounting a constitutional challenge at the Supreme Court against powers of parliament to deal with matters which should ordinarily be handled by the courts in line with the doctrine of separation of powers.

But with Zimbabwe's highest court now packed with loyalist judges, Mr Bennett's future looks very bleak.