A Zimbabwean court ordered a senior opposition politician back to jail Wednesday to await his trial, set to begin next week.
“I commit the accused to prison,” Magistrate Lucy Mungwari said as she announced the ruling in Roy Bennett’s case to a packed courtroom in Mutare, about 185 miles southeast of the capital, Harare. Bennett, a Movement for Democratic Change politician and an ardent critic of President Robert Mugabe’s policies, was arrested on February 13 — just before he was to be sworn in as deputy agriculture minister in the new power-sharing government. He faces charges of possessing weapons for sabotage, banditry and terrorism. Initially he had been charged with treason. Immediately after the ruling, prison guards whisked away a visibly shocked Bennett, clad in khaki trousers, brown shoes and a checked shirt. “We are really worried by this development,” said Bennett’s lawyer, Trust Maanda. “We are trying all possibilities to have him released. We will be at the high court this evening to seek his liberty.” State prosecutor Chris Mutangadura said the development was a “natural effect of the law.”
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“It is procedural,” Mutangadura said. “He had to be indicted to the high court, and that means he loses his liberty until the trial resumes.” “If there is any defect in the process, the accused should raise it with the high court,” said the magistrate, Mungwari. A spokesman for Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said the premier has tried to meet with Mugabe since hearing that Bennett was sent back to jail. Tsvangirai has not been granted access by Mugabe’s employees, said spokesman James Maridadi. “The prime minister has suspended the council of ministers’ meeting he chairs on Thursdays,” Maridadi said. “… He is meeting his party leadership first thing on Thursday.” The arrest of Bennett, a white coffee grower whose property was expropriated under the country’s controversial land reform laws, came as other ministers where being sworn into the coalition government formed by Mugabe and Tsvangirai. The action almost derailed the power-sharing deal, which had been brokered by the regional Southern African Development Community after a hotly disputed election won by Mugabe last year. Bennett spent about a month in jail before the country’s Supreme Court ordered him released on bail in March. Movement for Democratic Change spokesman Nelson Chamisa called Wednesday’s ruling “a ridiculous and extraordinary development.” He said it was a “serious abuse of the law, which will affect the coalition government,” and added, “We are not going to sit and watch this abuse go on.”