Zimbabwean rival of Mugabe acquitted

He was accused of plotting president's assassination

October 16, 2004|By Laurie Goering | Laurie Goering,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was acquitted yesterday in Harare of conspiring to assassinate President Robert Mugabe in a verdict praised by his party as "a victory for the people of Zimbabwe."

Tsvangirai, head of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, could have received the death penalty or a long prison term if convicted. But a Zimbabwe high court judge who heard the arguments said the state had not made its case against the popular former union leader.

Opposition supporters, who had been prepared for a conviction from the country's largely state-controlled judiciary, applauded the verdict. Tsvangirai broke into a relieved smile as it was announced, and his lawyer, George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela from treason charges in the 1960s, wept.

"We welcome the decision," said Samkelo Mokhine, head of Amnesty International in neighboring South Africa. "We always thought that the charges were spurious and just part of the broader attack on both the MDC and human-rights defenders in Zimbabwe," he said.

While concerns about the independence of Zimbabwe's courts remain, "this somewhat restores our confidence in some of the judges on the bench in Zimbabwe," he said.

Tsvangirai, who international observers widely believe would have won the country's 2002 presidential elections except for election rigging by Mugabe, had been charged with soliciting help in a plot to kill the president, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980.

High Court Judge Paddington Garwe, however, ruled that a nearly inaudible video, in which Tsvangirai purportedly spoke of his desire to "eliminate" Mugabe, had been the result of an entrapment effort and that the state's chief witness had accepted money from the government.

Tsvangirai's acquittal "is a victory for the people of Zimbabwe and a huge blow to the forces of tyranny," Garwe movement said in a statement yesterday.

Whether the verdict will re-energize Zimbabwe's largely stalled opposition movement remains to be seen. Since the 2002 elections, Mugabe's government has stifled its political opponents by banning opposition meetings, marches and other activities. Hundreds of activists have been beaten or jailed.

Tsvangirai still faces another treason charge, stemming from his movement's efforts to organize nationwide anti-government demonstrations last year.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, warned yesterday that Zimbabwe's government is laying the groundwork to use food as a tool of political control in parliamentary elections in March. The government insists it has adequate stocks of grain and is refusing international food aid. But independent observers say the country's harvest is only half of what is needed, and human-rights groups warn that the government, which controls grain sales, may distribute food only to its supporters, as it has tried to do in the past.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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