Zimbabwe Judge: Torture Can Be Raised in Case

Published November 11, 2009

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Defense lawyers for a top prime minister's aide can raise torture allegations at his trial, a judge ruled Wednesday in a case that has shaken Zimbabwe's troubled coalition government.

Judge Chinembiri Bhunu also ruled that a weapons dealer can testify at Roy Bennett's trial, setting the stage for lawyers to spar over his testimony and how it was obtained once the proceedings begin in earnest Thursday.

The weapons case against Bennett, a top aide to Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, stems from allegations of a plot to topple President Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai says the charges are baseless and part of efforts by Mugabe loyalists to undermine the coalition formed in February between the longtime rivals.

Bennett's lawyers say weapons dealer Peter Michael Hitschmann, who is the main prosecution witness, was not only tortured but also did not implicate Bennett during his own trial.

Hitschmann was arrested in 2006 and initially accused of plotting to assassinate Mugabe. Bennett had not been linked to the case until his arrest in February.

Hitschmann was cleared on charges of treason and "possessing weapons for the purpose of terrorism," the same charges Bennett faces that carry a possible death sentence or life imprisonment if convicted. Hitschmann spent 2½ years in jail on lesser charges of possessing illegal weapons.

Zimbabwe's neighbors had pressed for the coalition to be formed after a series of inconclusive elections marred by violence blamed on Mugabe loyalists, saying the country's factions needed to stop bickering and find solutions to their economic and political crises.

Tsvangirai temporarily withdrew from the coalition because of the case against Bennett among other issues. Last week, South Africa and other neighbors called a summit at which they persuaded Tsvangirai to end his boycott.

Ayanda Ntsaluba, the top civil servant in South Africa's foreign ministry, told reporters Tuesday that leaders at the summit made clear that they believed "the political leadership of Zimbabwe must not squander what appears to be the opportunity, perhaps their only opportunity, to pull the country out of the abyss."

Ntsaluba said that outside countries had to step carefully though.

"We are dealing with people who really have been at war with one another virtually, and that the levels of trust are not exactly where you would want them to be," Ntsaluba said.

Written by Associated Press

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