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Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 11:32 UK

Profile: Zimbabwe's political farmer

Roy Bennett (left) and Morgan Tsvangirai (right)
Morgan Tsvangirai (r) wants Roy Bennett to be his deputy agriculture minister

Like many of Zimbabwe's former white farmers, Roy Bennett - the opposition's nominee for deputy agricultural minister - is a little rough around the edges.

Since he entered politics in 2000, winning a parliamentary seat for the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change, he has been a controversial figure.

Nine years later, just as he about to take up his post in the new power-sharing government, he was arrested and charged with treason.

I am not proud of what happened. But I am human, I snapped after many years of abuse and taunting
Roy Bennett

The coffee farmer-turned-politician, 51, had only recently returned to Zimbabwe after more than two years in exile in South Africa.

He had fled after police sought his arrest in connection with an alleged plot against President Robert Mugabe.

But he is best known for losing his temper with Zanu-PF Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa in 2004 in a row over the land redistribution programme, which saw most of the country's 4,000 white farmers lose their land.

Many were forced from their homes by mobs of Zanu-PF supporters.

Mr Chinamasa called Mr Bennett's forefathers "thieves and murderers", saying he deserved to lose his farm after benefiting from a British colonial system that robbed black Zimbabweans of their land.

In the heat of the argument, Mr Bennett pushed the minister to the ground.

If, Mr Bennett ever takes up his post, he will come face-to-face with Mr Chinamasa again, as he is justice minister.

'Living hell'

"I am not proud of what happened. But I am human, I snapped after many years of abuse and taunting," he said afterwards.

Roy Bennett (file photo)
Roy Bennett lost 30kg during his time in prison

He told of how some of his employees had been killed and many were severely assaulted when militants took over his farm during the 2000 election campaign - the stress of which, he said, caused his wife to miscarry.

Zanu-PF MPs, however, were outraged by the assault which they described as "the worst attack on the dignity of the parliament".

They sentenced him to 15 months in prison - an experience he described as a living hell.

"I feel very sad for those that are left behind... because I should imagine if one gets to hell, that is what you experience," he said, after serving eight months.

The former champion polo player lost 30kg during his ordeal.

He said he was made to stand naked in front of prison guards and was then given a prison uniform covered with human excrement when he arrived in jail.

Hiding

While Zanu-PF has sought to portray him as the embodiment of exploitative colonialism, he has proved a charismatic politician in his Chimanimani constituency - a beautiful mountainous region in eastern Zimbabwe which has long been an opposition stronghold.

Patrick Chinamasa
Patrick Chinamasa said Roy Bennett deserved to lose his farm

Fluent in the local Shona language, he is known by his nickname "Pachedu" which means "between us" - a colloquial reference to childhood secrets.

In South Africa, where his family was granted asylum after he was accused of trying to kill President Mugabe in 2006, Mr Bennett continued his role as national treasurer for the MDC.

The alleged plot surrounded the discovery of an arms cache - and eight other people, including another opposition MP, were also implicated.

They were later released and charges dropped, but Mr Bennett - it appears - was still wanted by police.

He went into hiding when he heard police were still after him and was arrested as he tried to fly out of the country from a small airfield north-west of the capital, Harare.

He told the BBC beforehand that he felt it was part of an attempt by Zanu-PF hard-liners to scupper the new coalition government.

"They want us to walk away from this deal, he said. We've just got to be smarter than them," he said.

His acquittal removes one obstacle to the smooth functioning of the awkward power-sharing government - if he can work with those he feels have been persecuting him for all this time.



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