November 4, 2003

ZIMBABWE: Court postpones ruling on Mugabe poll challenge

Lawyers for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe demanded on Tuesday, Nov 4, his critics bring witnesses to back their claim that his re-election last year was rigged, calling on the High Court not to decide just on legal arguments. Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and several Western groups say Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, rigged the March 2002 poll to overcome an unprecedented challenge to his rule.

High Court judge Ben Hlatshwayo reserved judgment on the matter to an unspecified date. He might decide on the validity of the election purely on the basis of the arguments of the last two days, or order a fuller hearing with witnesses. Mugabe's lawyer said on Tuesday that Tsvangirai's legal team had failed over the last two days to back its charges that many laws and regulations governing the election were not in line with Zimbabwe's constitution, and should call witnesses. "This must rank as one of the weakest petitions that have come before this court.... What you are being asked to do is come up with a decision based on the flowery language that has been used. In my respectful submission that is not possible," Terrence Hussein, representing Mugabe, told the judge. "It is inconceivable that the election of the president should be set aside because three lawyers appeared before you and made arguments; that would be a monumental legal disaster."

In his preliminary statement to the court on Monday, Tsvangirai's lawyer, Jeremy Gauntlett of South Africa, said the elections were "stifled, at best, because the president, one of the contenders, became the rule-maker" and should be nullified. Hussein denied Mugabe abused presidential powers to change some electoral rules in his favor 72 hours before voting, saying he had acted to fill a void created by a Supreme Court decision that had nullified legislation relevant to the vote. The MDC says if the judge orders the hearing to be taken further, it will argue Mugabe's party used violence and intimidation against opponents, bribed voters and hogged access to state media.

African observers said the polls had been free and fair, but the European Union and Commonwealth condemned them as deeply flawed. The Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe for a year. Mugabe insists he won the election fairly and says the MDC is a puppet of Western powers he accuses of sabotaging Zimbabwe's economy. They did that to punish his government for its seizure of white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks.

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