HARARE, Zimbabwe – A judge acquitted top prime minister's aide Roy Bennett of all charges Monday in a terrorism case that had strained Zimbabwe's struggling coalition government since it was forged more than a year ago.
Bennett had faced weapons and insurgency charges that could have carried the death penalty stemming from an alleged plot to topple longtime President Robert Mugabe. Bennett's supporters including Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai maintained the charges were baseless and aimed at undermining the coalition.
"We are fortified and strengthened to continue our fight for real change for the people of Zimbabwe," said Bennett, who was surrounded by jubilant supporters.
Bennett was Tsvangirai's choice for deputy minister of agriculture in the coalition government, but Bennett was arrested on Feb. 13, 2009, the day the unity Cabinet was sworn in. Mugabe had refused to swear in Bennett until the trial was over.
Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the prime minister's party, said they would press for Bennett to take up his designated post as deputy minister of agriculture. No comment was immediately available from Mugabe's office.
Judge Chinembiri Bhunu ruled Monday that the prosecution had failed to prove that Bennett and arms dealer Peter Michael Hitschmann "connived to unlawfully depose the government" between 2002 and 2006 while amassing a weapons cache.
Bhunu said the most important evidence presented by prosecutors was inadmissible — a confession Hitschmann said he was tortured into making.
The judge also ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove that e-mails allegedly linking Bennett to Hitschmann were genuine. And the state could not produce bank statements to back allegations Bennett paid $5,000 for weapons into Hitschmann's account in neighboring Mozambique.
Hitschmann was sentenced to four years in prison for possessing unlicensed weapons but later was freed after a ruling that his confession was made under torture.
Bennett, who is white and a former farmer is eastern Zimbabwe, forfeited his land during the often violent seizures of thousands of commercial farms that began in 2000.
A fluent speaker of the local Shona language, Bennett's political activism angered Mugabe's party. Bennett was seen as symbolizing defiance against land seizures that Mugabe insisted were needed to correct colonial-era imbalances in land ownership.
The seizures disrupted the agriculture-based economy and led to acute food shortages and world record inflation. Mugabe insists Western sanctions caused the economic collapse.
Deep divisions still remain in Zimbabwe's government, which was forged as a compromise after disputed national elections in 2008.
Tsvangirai's party blames Mugabe for reneging on key provisions of the power-sharing deal that allow for democratic and media reform, and an end to lawlessness after years of political and economic turmoil.
Mugabe alleges Tsvangirai's party has failed to win concessions from its Western allies to remove targeted sanctions against Mugabe loyalists that include an assets freeze and travel bans.
The coalition deal calls for fresh elections next year under a new constitution, but efforts to rewrite the nation's supreme law have stalled over bickering and lack of funds for a countrywide public outreach program.