20. February 2009

Security chiefs' in control

As if to emphasise the hold the Zanu-PF security chiefs retained on power, new prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai spent his first full day in office visiting political detainees but failed to secure any deal on their release.

After the inauguration ceremony on Friday he said he wanted political prisoners freed immediately, but left a maximum-security prison near the capital with no assurances of release.

The arrest of senior MDC official Roy Bennett on the same day, before new ministers took their oaths on Friday (February 13) was another indication that Tsvangirai had made no advance in his bid to control at least part of the security apparatus. Bennett, the MDC Treasurer General, was charged with treason and taken to a police station in Mutare in the east of the country. He was due to become deputy agriculture minister in the new government. Bennett had been living in exile in South Africa after fleeing the country about two years ago because police wanted to question him in connection with the alleged discovery of an arms cache in eastern Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwes new finance minister, Tendai Biti, who has also been most suspicious of going into the unity government, said the arrest was an ominous start for the unity government. "Bennetts arrest proves what we have always argued: that Zanu-PF is not yet ready to work with anyone," said Biti. However Biti ruled out a pull-out. "Sadly we are forced to stay in this arrangement for the sake of the people of Zimbabwe," he said.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe says he doesn't see why a terrorism case against a longtime rival has made news around the world. Mugabe's first public comments on the charges faced by Roy Bennett show the gulf between his Zanu PF party and the Movement for Democratic Change, two longtime opponents now trying to work together in a unity government. "The issue of Roy Bennett is making headlines worldwide. I wonder why?" Mugabe said yesterday (Feb 19). "This is a court case. Let the courts decide for themselves." The Movement for Democratic Change, the former opposition party, says Bennett's arrest a week ago is part of a plot by Zanu PF hard-liners to wreck Zimbabwe's unity government. On Wednesday a judge ordered that Bennett be held for at least two more weeks pending trial on terrorism and weapons charges linked to long-discredited accusations that his party had plotted Mugabe's overthrow. While Mugabe refuses, at least in public, to acknowledge the seriousness of the case, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has raised it with him in private. The detention of Bennett and other opposition figures and human rights advocates raises the pressure on Tsvangirai to convince supporters that joining a government with Mugabe and his Zanu PF party was not a mistake. Mugabe has called the unity government a "temporary measure" to stabilize the country so that new elections can be held.

Tsvangirai had nominated Bennett to be deputy agriculture minister. The other deputies and junior ministers were sworn in yesterday, among them five Zanu PF politicians Mugabe had proposed last minute. Mugabe said the extra five would serve as advisers to the president and the prime minister. The main cabinet consists of 32 ministers sworn in last week. Mugabe has 15 ministers, one of whom shares control of the police ministry with one of Tsvangirai's ministers; Tsvangirai has 14; and Arthur Mutambara, the leader of a MDC breakaway faction, has three.

This week a High Court judge granted bail under harsh conditions to four political prisoners in Zimbabwe but the prosecutor immediately succeeded in getting their detention extended. The arrests also continued. Harare car dealer "Jumbo" Davidson was arrested and is being held in Harare Central Police Station, accused of driving Roy Bennett to the airport last Friday. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights has called for "urgent intervention" in the continued detention of MDC supporters and other civil rights activists and a photo journalist. High Court Judge Yunus Omerjee granted bail to four MDC members accused of organising a series of two minor explosions bombings of police stations and railway lines. But his order was immediately suspended, following the invocation of the state's appeal to the Supreme Court. No evidence linking any of the detainees to any acts of violence by the accused has yet been presented to any court. Judge Omerjee granted bail to four, Chinoto Zulu, Zach-ariah Nkomo, Mapfumo Garut-sa and Regis Mujeyi, after their lawyers applied for bail at the High Court. The bail applications of three more, Kisimusi Dhlam-ini, Gandi Mudzingwa, prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai's former personal assistant, and freelance photo journalist Andrison Manyere, were denied. Judge Omerjee said the state had not shown any progress in investigations nor provided further evidence in court implicating them. (SouthScan; ZWNews)

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