Roy Bennett acquittal shows independence of Zimbabwe judiciary

A judgment that cleared Roy Bennett of terrorism and theft charges Monday signals a new autonomy in Zimbabwe's judicial system. But it does 't mean that President Robert Mugabe is ready to accept Bennett in his government.

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    Zimbabwe's opposition party Movement for Democratic Change's (MDC) treasurer Roy Bennett speaks to the media as he leaves the High court in Harare, Monday.
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The acquittal of Roy Bennett, a senior member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is a test case of President Robert Mugabe’s commitment to the shaky government of national unity (GNU), political analysts say.

Mr. Bennett, who had faced charges of banditry and terrorism, which can draw the death penalty in Zimbabwe, was cleared of the charges by the High Court Monday.

President Robert Mugabe had refused to swear in Bennett as the new agriculture deputy minister until he was cleared by the courts. Bennett’s swearing in as a deputy minister has been one of the outstanding issues of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) which paved the way for Zimbabwe's 2008 power-sharing government.

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But while Bennett’s acquittal is a relief to the MDC, it is not a sign of better times to come, political analysts say.

“His acquittal will somehow lubricate the process,” says Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. “But it would be too simplistic to say that it will end the crisis in unity government, as there are other outstanding issues which are still to be addressed.”

Other outstanding issues include appointments of provincial governors, of the Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono and Attorney General Johannes Tomana, and sanctions imposed on Mugabe and his cronies by the West.

Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the two MDC party formations, which make up the unity government, have set up a delegation to plead for the removal of sanctions. The delegation had to postpone a meeting with the European Union last month after flights were grounded because of the Iceland volcanic ash.

Will Mugabe swear-in Bennett?

It is highly likely, Masunungure says, that Mugabe will continue to refuse to swear-in Bennett, despite his acquittal. “His acquittal has removed the legal impediment but the political obstacle is still there,” says Masunungure. “ZANU-PF does not want him deputy minister of agriculture because he is a white former commercial farmer. I strongly believe that ZANU-PF will find other reasons to scuttle his swearing-in, in the process setting a collision course with the MDC.”

The MDC, for its part, says it expects Bennett to be sworn in this week.

“And this week, Zimbabweans expect the swearing-in of their deputy minister of Agriculture so that he begins the national duty of assisting in mitigating yet another season of hunger and starvation in most parts of the country,” said the MDC in a statement.

Newfound judicial independence

“Firstly, this means that the judiciary is slowly becoming autonomous,” says University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer John Makumbe. “And secondly, it also shows that the case against Bennett was hopelessly weak. They were just trumped up charges.”

Mr. Makumbe says ZANU-PF hates Bennett because he is widely seen as a key figure in financing the MDC as treasurer general of the party, attracting donations from abroad.

Race also plays a part, Makumbe says. Bennett, despite being white, is very popular among poor ordinary Zimbabweans. “Zanu-PF wanted their pound of fresh from Roy Bennett and his blood as well,” says Makumbe, who notes that Bennett – a fluent speaker of the Mashona language – was a popular parliamentarian in the past. “They did not want him because of the colour of his skin and secondly because he is highly popular among the blacks.”

Masunungure agrees that race plays a role, but he says that the key issue is Bennett’s status as a white commercial farmer.

Bennett might not be able to reverse the land reform program, in which much of Zimbabwe’s white commercial farmland has been seized by ZANU-PF supporters and so-called war veterans, Masunungure says, but ZANU-PF insiders fear that he may use his influence to repossess his own farm, which was seized during a chaotic land reform program starting in 2000.

Some analysts fear that the involvement of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila in talks in Zimbabwe could further complicate the negotiation process. Kabila was educated in Zimbabwe, and Makumbe says the MDC see Kabila as close to Mugabe, after Zimbabwe sent troops to the DRC to stave off a rebel assault against Kabila’s father, former President Laurent Kabila.

“What Kabila is doing is very undiplomatic,” said Makumbe. “He may complicate issues by trying to overtake Zuma.”

One year on, the ZANU-PF/MDC power-sharing government is still limping. Mugabe officially meets with his coalition partners, but he has deliberately undermined Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and has on several occasions wantonly violated the political agreement with MDC. Mugabe retains control over the police, Army, and intelligence agencies. While he has given the Ministry of Finance to the MDC’s Tendai Biti, he has assigned his personal loyalist Gideon Gono to run the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which controls access to foreign exchange.

In Harare, the MDC has “important democratic space,” says Makumbe. But human rights activists say that police continue to harass and terrorize MDC supporters in rural areas and to favor ZANU-PF supporters when the two main parties clash.

Editor's note: A correspondent, who cannot be named because of security reasons, wrote this report from Harare.

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