March 21, 2002

Tsvangirai on trial, Commonwealth suspension

Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai appeared in court Wednesday, March 20, on treason charges but the government insisted the case had no link with the country's suspension from the Commonwealth only a day earlier. Tsvangirai and Renson Gasela, a senior member of parliament from his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), were released on bail after the remand hearing over an alleged plot to assassinate President Robert Mugabe. The MDC leader and Gasela were summoned to the magistrate's court in Harare the day after the Commonwealth announced it was suspending Zimbabwe on the basis of a damning report on the country's presidential election by the 54-member body's election observer team.

Tsvangirai's lawyer Eric Matinenga was quick to link the two developments, calling the timing of the opposition leader's summons "a typical knee-jerk reaction to the events that unfolded yesterday". He added: "This particular appearance is just continued harassment of Mr. Tsvangirai and senior members of his party." But Information Minister Jonathan Moyo told reporters the summons was not an act of political retribution. "Nobody ... is above the law, and it is cheap politics for anybody to commit crimes and seek refuge under allegations of political retribution," Moyo said.

MDC Secretary General Welshman Ncube was formally charged in the affair on March 12, the day before Mugabe was declared the winner of the March 9-11 poll by a wide margin over Tsvangirai, who immediately cried foul.

The Commonwealth decision to suspend Zimbabwe for one year triggered widely differing reactions, ranging from rejection by the Mugabe government to praise from former colonial power Britain, which had campaigned heavily for the measure. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "In deciding to suspend Zimbabwe, the Commonwealth has today spoken with one voice. The message could not be clearer, nor the messengers more significant," Straw said. The European Union said it hoped Mugabe would "listen to the voice of the international community", which was calling for the democratisation of the southern African country.

Zimbabwe Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge, for his part said the Commonwealth move was based on conclusions that were "fundamentally flawed," and called on "all member countries to give urgent and active attention to the hijacking of the collective will of the Commonwealth to serve the hostile intentions of a few."

The floodgates opened against Mugabe when long-time ally Denmark announced soon after the elections that it was closing its Harare embassy and cutting all development aid in protest against Mugabe’s re-election, that has been castigated as a blatant fraud. Switzerland followed up by slapping travel and financial sanctions on Mugabe, his top officials and their families.

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Phil Goff said Wellington would emulate the targeted sanctions against Mugabe and his lieutenants, already embraced by the 15-nation European Union and the United States which rejected the March 9-11 presidential ballot. New Zealand had also wanted Zimbabwe banned from the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in July, but Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive Mike Hooper said the country would still be invited because the sanctions covered political matters. Earlier Germany and Japan also suspended all development aid. Canada, another long-time ally of the government, last week imposed travel sanctions on Mugabe and his close aides and also suspended most of its development aid. The United States, whose President George W Bush is consulting American allies to chart further action on Harare’s leaders, said it was looking at widening travel and financial sanctions it has already imposed on the Zimbabwean leadership. The European Union is doing the same.

Tsvangirai's MDC meanwhile said the Commonwealth decision vindicated the opposition and was tantamount to declaring the new Mugabe presidency illegitimate. "The position taken by the Commonwealth indicates the same view that we hold - that the presidential elections ... were not free and fair," the MDC said in a statement. "This therefore makes the result illegitimate and Robert Mugabe's tenure as president illegitimate," said the statement, signed by Ncube. (MAIL&GUARDIAN, THE FINANCIAL GAZETTE)

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