Page last updated at 14:59 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 15:59 UK

Zimbabwe court acquits PM's ally Roy Bennett


Roy Bennett speaks after his acquittal

A Zimbabwean court has acquitted a leading politician, Roy Bennett, of plotting to overthrow the country's President, Robert Mugabe.

Mr Bennett is a senior member of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party.

The judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove that an alleged link between Mr Bennett and a convicted arms dealer was genuine.

The case had threatened to split the country's unity government of long-term rivals Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai.

The MDC had always said the charges were politically motivated and insisted that he be sworn in as deputy agriculture minister but Mr Mugabe refused, saying the courts should first finish the case.

Mr Bennett was already free on bail.

'Good triumphs'

Speaking outside the court in Harare, he told the BBC he was happy to be acquitted and now had the time and strength to move on.

Brian Hungwe, Zimbabwe journalist
By Brian Hungwe, Harare

The acquittal of Roy Bennett has cleared one of the major obstacles dogging Zimbabwe's year-old power-sharing government.

But it could also signal the beginning of another heated debate.

Roy Bennett's deployment to the agriculture ministry irked the security services and top Zanu-PF officials, many of whom benefited from the land reform programme.

It is unlikely that President Mugabe will accommodate Mr Bennett or allow him near controversial files that might expose the rot.

There is a general expectation Mr Mugabe will dig in and the MDC will again cry foul despite the acquittal.

Should Mr Mugabe climb down and swear him in, it would be a huge political statement.

"Good has triumphed over evil," he said.

"I've been standing resolute with the people of Zimbabwe who've been undergoing the same persecution. But it's made me more resolute and fortified me more in my fight towards real change in Zimbabwe."

He was looking forward to having a proper sleep, he told the AFP news agency in the Shona language.

The white former farmer is a leading member of Mr Tsvangirai's MDC (Movement for Democratic Change).

He was to have taken a position as deputy minister for agriculture in the government when he was arrested in February 2009.

"Having carefully considered the facts, I come to the conclusion that the state has failed to prove a prima facie case," said Judge Chinembiri Bhunu.

"The accused is accordingly found not guilty."

He said that the prosecutors' key evidence - an alleged confession from arms dealer Peter Hitschmann - was inadmissible.

In earlier testimony to the court, Mr Hitschmann had said evidence he gave allegedly showing links to Mr Bennett had been extracted under torture.

2000: Elected MP
2004: Jailed after pushing minister in parliament
2006: Accused of plot to kill President Mugabe
2006: Fled to South Africa
2009: Nominated as deputy agriculture minister; arrested
May 2010: Acquitted of plot charges

Judge Bhunu also said prosecutors had not proved that e-mails allegedly linking Mr Bennett to Mr Hitschmann were genuine.

Mr Bennett's supporters had said the charges were aimed at undermining the coalition government.

A spokesman for the MDC has said the party will push for Mr Bennett to take up his ministerial position immediately.

Although the case was a major cause of tension in the power-sharing administration formed in 2009, several other problems remain, such as nominations to key positions and accusations of continued persecution of MDC activists.

Last week, Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai put on a rare show of unity to appeal for investors to return to the country.

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