Charges threaten unity with Mugabe

Opposition party denounces case

Outside a court in Mutare, Zimbabwe, members of the Movement for Democratic Change demonstrated their support for Roy Bennett, who faces terrorism and insurgency charges. Outside a court in Mutare, Zimbabwe, members of the Movement for Democratic Change demonstrated their support for Roy Bennett, who faces terrorism and insurgency charges. (philimon bulawayo/reuters)
By Angus Shaw
Associated Press / February 18, 2009
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HARARE, Zimbabwe - Police unveiled terrorism and weapons-related charges yesterday against a prominent official in the party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has called the case an attempt to derail Zimbabwe's unity government.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change said Roy Bennett, Tsvangirai's designated deputy agriculture minister, was taken to court for the first time since his arrest. Police told a magistrate he was accused of attempting to commit terrorism; banditry and sabotage; conspiring to acquire arms to disrupt essential services; illegal possession of fire arms and weapons; and attempting to leave the country illegally, the party said.

The magistrate said he would rule today on whether the police case was strong enough for the trial to proceed.

Tsvangirai has described Bennett's arrest on Friday as an attempt by hard-liners in President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF to derail the coalition government, whose 32-member Cabinet met for the first time yesterday. Tsvangirai's party called for the release of Bennett and several political and human rights activists detained even as the coalition agreement was being finalized.

"These charges are scandalous and politically motivated," the party said.

The downtown meeting yesterday was "very cordial," but no substantive issues were discussed, Tsvangirai spokesman James Maridadi said.

Maridadi said a multiparty committee formed to ensure the coalition worked smoothly was expected to report to Tsvangirai today on the arrests of Bennett and the activists, which have strained relations among the coalition partners.

Tsvangirai met afterward with Mugabe separately to raise concerns about the "credibility of the government" and the need for freedom of expression, Maridadi said. Tsvangirai then met with foreign ministry officials, Maridadi said.

Amnesty International cited Bennett's arrest in calling for the African Union and the United Nations to send human rights investigators to Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe's power-sharing deal - created to end a year of political deadlock - aims to have rival politicians work together to address Zimbabwe's economic meltdown. An international doctors group said yesterday that Zimbabwe's entire health system has collapsed and the southern African nation, now overwhelmed by cholera, will soon face other epidemics, a worsening AIDS crisis, and the effects of widespread malnutrition, .

The Nobel Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders urged both foreign donors and Zimbabwe's government to do more to ease the crisis, saying that "nonsense" such as high government fees had made it difficult for international aid agencies to help.

The next epidemic could be malaria, the group said, because peak season for malaria is imminent and Zimbabwe has been unable to afford preventive measures such as insecticide-treated nets.

Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate and faces acute food and gasoline shortages. The hunger crisis has left up to 7 million people, more than half the population, dependent on foreign handouts. The cholera epidemic, blamed on collapsed water, sanitation, and health services, has killed more than 3,600 people since August.

Kenya's prime minister, who serves under a power-sharing agreement with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki that ended postelection violence in their east African country, expressed little optimism that Zimbabwe's deal will work.

"I always feared that Mugabe is not a gentleman and I am still convinced he is not," Raila Odinga said in a statement. "This Zimbabwe deal was modeled on the Kenyan example, but I am still convinced that President Mugabe is not President Mwai Kibaki and is not willing to let go of shreds of power."

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