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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Judge sues Zimbabwe opposition politician Roy Bennett for libel

Judge sues Zimbabwe opposition politician Roy Bennett for libel

Jan Raath Harare
Last updated September 29 2010 12:01AM

Roy Bennett, the leading Zimbabwean opposition politician, is being sued for libel by the judge who tried him for terrorism earlier this year.

Judge Chinembiri Bhunu is demanding US$1 million in damages for Mr Bennett’s claim that the trial was rigged. He was, in fact, acquitted.

The day before the verdict of his terrorism trial in May, The Guardian website quoted him as saying that he fully expected to be found guilty, despite every sign that that the case was another trumped-up affair by President Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation.

Zimbabwe’s judiciary was “totally compromised,” Mr Bennett was quoted as saying, while the judge trying him “is the owner of a farm [seized from its white owner] that he’s been given through political patronage.”

Judge Bhunu has been allocated a farm, its owner, Bruce Campbell, confirmed yesterday. It comprises the homestead, tobacco barns and some land on a section of Carruthersville farm in the Marondera district, 80km east of Harare. He was driven off in 2002, one of first white farmers in the area to be targeted.

Before the judge moved in last year, it was occupied by the permanent secretary in the Justice Ministry, who gave it up so that he could take over a second farm, in the country’s midlands, Mr Campbell said.

He used to keep cattle and grew tobacco, seed maize and barley. Now, he said, apart from perhaps four hectares of winter wheat, “the rest of the farm has got nothing, absolutely nothing.”

In court papers published here yesterday, Judge Bhunu said that Mr Bennett had defamed him by implying that he was “not a fit and proper person” to be judge, and that his judicial integrity had been compromised by the allocation of a farm to him. Mr Bennett was given ten days in which to defend himself, or have the matter dealt with forthwith by the High Court.

Beatrice Mtetwa, his lawyer, said that she could not comment until she had spoken to Mr Bennett, who was in Canada, and that she did not know how to contact him.

The International Bar Association and others have condemned Mr Mugabe’s “packing” of the judiciary with cronies and then rewarding them with farms grabbed from their white owners. At least four of the eight Supreme Court judges have been given farms.

Last year a judge who ordered the release of torture victims had his farm taken from him as punishment.

Over the past ten years Mr Mugabe has gone to extraordinary lengths to end Mr Bennett’s political career, if not his life. He was violently ejected from his farm, jailed for eight months for a minor scuffle in Parliament, had to flee into exile ahead of the secret police and returned last year to arrested hours before he was due to be sworn in as a minister of the new coalition Government.

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MDC stalwart Roy Bennett acquitted on terrorism charges

Jan Raath Harare
Last updated May 11 2010 12:01AM

A key ally of Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwean Prime Minister, was unexpectedly acquitted on charges of terrorism yesterday in a ruling that challenges President Mugabe’s grip on power.

Roy Bennett, one of the top three officials in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had been accused of possessing arms for purposes of terrorism, banditry and sabotage. Prosecutors said he planned to fund a plot to murder government officials.

Mr Bennett, who would have faced the death penalty if convicted, was arrested in February 2009 when Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai were being sworn in as the heads of the power-sharing coalition.

The President had refused to swear in Mr Bennett, a former white farmer, as deputy agriculture minister until he had been acquitted.

“I didn’t expect it. Good has triumphed over evil,” Mr Bennett said as he left the High Court at the end of his eight-month trial. Scenes of elation greeted Judge Chinembiri Bhunu’s declaration that the State had failed to prove any of its charges. Some of the evidence against Mr Bennett reduced the public gallery to laughter.

“It’s good news, it’s very positive,” Mr Tsvangirai told reporters in Washington, where he learnt of Mr Bennett’s acquittal. “He’s not being prosecuted, he’s being persecuted. I hope that the persecution has ended.”

Mr Mugabe’s refusal to install Mr Bennett became one of the main obstacles in the stalled administration of the MDC and Zanu (PF), a deadlock that President Zuma of South Africa has struggled to break. But the acquittal is unlikely to make the President more willing to swear in the MDC politician — a fluent speaker of the dominant Shona language and a popular figure.

In 2004 Mr Bennett was sentenced by Parliament to a year in jail for jostling a Zanu (PF) minister, an offence that in a magistrates’ court would have earned him a small fine. In his latest trial the Attorney-General submitted statements obtained under torture from Michael Hitschmann, a French-born arms trader charged in 2006 with plotting to assassinate Mr Mugabe. The discredited statements were resurrected with Mr Bennett’s name inserted while Mr Hitschmann was named the star witness. But the attempt to rig the trial failed spectacularly when Mr Hitschmann denied any links to Mr Bennett.

When state lawyers produced an “expert” to testify on the validity of alleged e-mails between the two men, the judge said the witness had only just scraped through his O levels and “the depth of his ignorance was amazing, to say the least”.

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