January 22, 2004

Zimbabwe's Tsvangirai takes stand in treason trial

Zimbabwe's main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has taken the stand for the first time in his treason trial and has denied he ever plotted to kill President Robert Mugabe - a man he said was once his hero. "I regarded Mr Mugabe as my hero and the hero of the liberation struggle," Tsvangirai said in response to a question by his lead defence counsel, renowned South African human rights lawyer George Bizos. Asked if he ever plotted to kill Mugabe or overthrow his government, the 51-year-old former trade unionist replied: "No, my Lord." Tsvangirai - who said he was a district political commissar in the ruling Zanu-PF in the 1980s - told how he fell out with Mugabe over policies restricting trade union activities and the government's handling of the economy.

State prosecutors say Tsvangirai plotted Mugabe's murder before 2002 polls that saw the veteran leader re-elected amid charges of vote-rigging from both the MDC and some foreign observers. In this context, the MDC leader also implicated the US government in a plot to unseat President Mugabe and Zanu-PF from power with the connivance of his party before the 2002 presidential poll. According to him, the United States, which he said would have been an important factor for the MDC had it won the polls, had also pledged financial support for his party.

Meanwhile, South African President Thabo Mbeki had announced that President Mugabe had agreed to begin formal talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in a bid to end Zimbabwe's crisis. "I'm happy to say that they have agreed now that they will go into formal negotiations," Mbeki told a joint news conference with visiting German Chancellor Schröder. Mbeki said his government had been "engaging both sides for a very long time". Schröder, on the other hand, remarked that South Africa had "not been as outspoken and as hard as one might have expected" with Zimbabwe. "I made myself very clear as far as the unacceptability of that regime is concerned, especially the political practices of that regime," Schröder said after a meeting with Mbeki in Pretoria. To which Mbeki responded: "Strong statements cannot be an aim in itself. Our task is to see what we can contribute to make sure that situation is changed as quickly as possible for the better."

It is understood Mugabe has agreed to resume talks that collapsed in May 2002 after MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai dragged Mugabe to court over a hotly-disputed presidential election. (The Herald, Harare/Zimbabwe Independent, Harare/BuaNews, Pretoria)

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