Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Zimbabwe MDC politician in court

Image from April 2008 showing Roy Bennett (L) with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in South Africa
Mr Bennett, here with PM Tsvangirai, faces several charges

Zimbabwe politician Roy Bennett has appeared in court and been charged with several offences, days after his party joined a power-sharing government.

The charges against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) treasurer included terrorism, immigration law violation and illegal arms possession.

The MDC said his arrest was politically motivated and called for his release.

Meanwhile, President Robert Mugabe and PM Morgan Tsvangirai attended the new cabinet's inaugural meeting in Harare.

Mr Mugabe chaired the meeting of the 32-member cabinet, state radio reported.

The issue of the charges against Mr Bennett dominated the agenda, says the BBC's Andrew Harding in Johannesburg, in neighbouring South Africa.

The MDC wants Mr Bennett, 52, released from custody, along with more than 30 other MDC supporters and activists who have been detained in recent months.

'Shooting in the dark'

But Mr Bennett's legal team could not even succeed on Tuesday in having the court agree to send their client to police holding cells, while he awaits his fate.

Police are fishing for charges. They are shooting in the dark
Defence lawyer Chris Ndlovu

Provincial magistrate Livingstone Chipadze said he would decide on Wednesday whether Mr Bennett had a case to answer and ruled in the meantime he must be sent to remand prison.

Wearing a white T-shirt and khaki shorts, Mr Bennett looked calm at his court appearance in Mutare, 270km (170 miles) east of Harare.

Hundreds of opposition supporters kept vigil outside the court throughout the day in support of Mr Bennett, who is the party's nominee to be deputy agriculture minister in the new unity government.

The MDC and the politician's defence team said the charges against Mr Bennett had changed several times since his arrest on Friday.

The MDC said Mr Bennett had been charged under Zimbabwe's Public Order and Security Act (POSA) with:

Opposition supporters outside Mutare court
Hundreds of opposition supporters kept vigil outside the court
  • Attempting to commit terrorism, banditry and sabotage
  • Conspiring to acquire arms with a view to disrupting essential services
  • Illegal possession of firearms and weapons
  • Attempting to leave the country illegally.

State prosecutors tried to link Mr Bennett to Peter Hitschmann, an ex-police officer convicted of possessing dangerous weapons.

State lawyer Tawanda Zvakare alleged Mr Bennett had funded the arms found in Hitschmann's possession in 2006.

But defence counsel Trust Maanda said an e-mail message allegedly linking the two had been "concocted".

The defence lawyer said Hitschmann should be called to give evidence, but the magistrate ruled against this.

Chris Ndlovu, also for the defence, told the BBC: "Police are fishing for charges. They are shooting in the dark."

The MDC claims the arrest is an attempt to derail Zimbabwe's power-sharing deal - newly sealed after months of political deadlock - to have rival politicians work together and address the country's economic collapse.

The opposition said in a statement: "The police know they do not have a case against Roy Bennett, and the charge of attempting to leave the country illegally is malicious in that they want to keep Roy Bennett in custody."

A white farmer who lost his property under Mr Mugabe's land reform programme, Mr Bennett spent eight months in prison in 2004-05 for pushing a minister during an argument in parliament over land reform.

He recently returned to Zimbabwe after more than two years in South Africa, where he had fled after police sought his arrest in connection with an alleged plot to kill Mr Mugabe.

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