February 8, 2003

ZIMBABWE: Tsvangirai high treason trial

Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai went on trial for high treason on Monday, Feb 3, after a delay as baton-wielding riot police denied independent journalists and diplomats entry to the courtroom. Tsvangirai and two other senior members of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are accused of treason for allegedly plotting to assassinate President Robert Mugabe and stage a military coup. If convicted, they could face the death penalty. Riot police arrested two journalists and manhandled diplomats as they selected who would be allowed into the courtroom, causing the trial to be delayed for more than three hours as defence lawyers applied for independent journalists to attend. After Judge Paddington Garwe directed that "members of the public and other interested persons be admitted", the trial opened with a summary of the case from state prosecutors. Standing in the dock, Tsvangirai and his fellow defendants, MDC secretary general Welshman Ncube and shadow minister of agriculture Renson Gasela, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The legal team representing the three accused includes top South African lawyer George Bizos who represented former South African President Nelson Mandela during the famous 1963-4 Rivonia trial. Bizos was temporarily registered to practice law in Zimbabwe in November to allow him to play a role in the defense of the MDC politicians.

While for the first two days the court heard lengthy poor-quality video-tape evidence alledgedly implicating Tsvangirai in a plot to „eliminate“ Zimbabwean State President Robert Mugabe, the High Court trial on its third day, Wednesday Feb 5, caught fire when defence attorneys cross-examined star prosecution witness Ari Ben-Menashe. Advocate George Bizos, who is leading the defence team, grilled Ben-Menashe until he sweated. Bizos accused Ben-Menashe of being a "fraudster" and of spinning "untruths". He said his reputation for dishonesty and fraudulent behaviour had actually put his credibility on trial.

Ben-Menashe on several occasions failed to answer questions and resorted to vitriol. Presiding judge Justice Paddington Garwe had to intervene three times to rein-in Ben-Menashe who engaged in a shouting match with Bizos. Bizos pointed out that Ben-Menashe tried to lead Tsvangirai into the assassination trap by insisting on using the word "elimination". "In the video you used the word eliminate 10 times. This you did to trap Mr Tsvangirai," said Bizos. Asked what he understood "eliminate" to mean, Ben-Menashe replied: "This isn't an English lesson."

That the main state witness in the treason trial of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has a record of "meddling" in foreign politics going back to the U.S. presidential vote in 1980 was substantiated by defence lawyer Bizos on the fifth day of the trial on Feb 8. A congressional committee found that Canadian-based consultant Ari Ben Menashe lied over the fate of U.S. hostages held in Iran during the election race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Bizos told the High Court in Harare. Ben Menashe also lied when he alleged candidates in Australia's 1987 poll accepted bribes to overlook weapons shipments through that nation.

Ben Menashe finally admitted the government paid him U.S.$100 000 on signing the contract on January 10, 2002, two weeks after he delivered the video. "We want to know what you did for the money, whether you earned it or got it for the entrapment of our clients," Bizos said. Bizos also asked Judge Paddington Garwe to arrest Ben Menashe for contempt after he refused to answer questions about his contract with the government, said he could not recall details of his company's banking arrangements and dodged queries on "non-performing" deals to provide food to Armenia, Belarus, Ghana, Russia and Zambia, for which he has been paid. Ben Menashe said most of the contracts, including Zimbabwe's, included confidentiality agreements.

However, a copy of the Zimbabwe contract exhibited in court showed no such clause. Among its requirements were four "Zimbabwe-friendly" films to be aired by the consultancy in North America. "What is the confidentiality he is breaching? I could understand if it were for supplying arms, not the showing of propaganda films," Bizos said. Garwe, who reprimanded Ben Menashe for insulting Tsvangirai with an epithet during his testimony, gave prosecutors until Monday to present an argument why Ben Menashe should be able to refuse to answer questions. In his questioning of Ben Menashe, Bizos said the consultant "has created controversy by his meddling" in the other elections. Bizos said he is willing to summon U.S. congressional and Australian officials to testify Ben Menashe is "an unmitigated liar". Bizos also said extensive public records and media reports show Ben Menashe's Montreal consultancy engages in fraud. Ben Menashe said he was called a crook in the western media because he stood up for the oppressed, Bizos said, but a London arbitration court ruled he defrauded Zambia of millions of dollars for grain that was never delivered. The U.S. magazine Newsweek said Ben Menashe is given to "fantasizing", and other leading world newspapers reported Israel's denials that Ben Menashe was ever a Mossad agent as he claimed, Bizos said. (ZWNews)

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