Zimbabwe court orders jailed politician freed

Roy Bennett, left, pictured with MDC leader Morgan Tzvangirai
A Zimbabwe court has ordered the release on bail of a top opposition politician, but the country’s attorney general immediately asked for seven days to decide whether it would appeal.

High Court judge Tedious Karwi said Tuesday that granting the $2,000 bail was “in the interest of justice.” “In my view it is impossible that he will interfere with state witnesses as the key witness is in custody and investigations must have been concluded by now,” Karwi said. Roy Bennett is the opposition’s choice to be deputy agriculture minister in a new power-sharing government. He was arrested two weeks ago on allegations of possessing weapons for sabotage, banditry and terrorism. He was initially charged with treason. His arrest meant Bennett was unable to be sworn in along with his fellow deputy ministers last Thursday. Bennett is being detained in a prison in Mutare, about 300 km east of Harare, until the state makes a decision on whether to appeal his bail. He did not attend the Tuesday proceedings. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the country’s new prime minister, had written a letter to the High Court as a guarantee that Bennett would not flee the country until the matter has been finalized. Charges for the 52-year-old white farmer — an ardent critic of President Robert Mugabe’s policies — stem from a cache of weapons found in the possession of Peter Hitchmann, who reportedly implicated Bennett, saying the arms were meant to destabilize the country. Hitchmann was eventually acquitted of possessing weapons for sabotage, banditry and terrorism. He was convicted of possessing weapons without a firearm license and is due to be released from prison in July this year. The foundation of the inclusive government — formed by Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) — has been on shaky ground with the arrest of Bennett, a senior member of the MDC who served as its treasurer and has been a longtime foe of President Robert Mugabe. Besides Bennett, more than 30 MDC supporters have been arrested since December and remain in prison, facing charges of plotting to topple Mugabe. Tsvangirai has said he is concerned by the continued arrests of his supporters.

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The MDC has accused Mugabe’s ZANU-PF of using Bennett to try to scupper the power-sharing deal Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed last year. Reports suggested Bennett may be caught up in the intense horse-trading between the MDC and army generals seeking immunity from prosecution for past atrocities. Zimbabwe’s new leaders are grappling with a massive humanitarian and economic crisis. Many civil servants — including teachers, doctors and nurses — have been on strike since September, demanding higher pay as Zimbabwe’s currency has plummeted in value. That has caused many schools to close and exacerbated a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 4,000 people and infected about 65,000 people since August. The power-sharing deal signed last year by ZANU-PF and the MDC for the unity government is seen by many as the only panacea to the crisis.

The deal came after a hotly disputed election in which Mugabe claimed victory, but the results were questioned by opposition leaders and international observers. Many Zimbabweans are hoping that the coalition government can remain intact and halt the country’s economic meltdown.