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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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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.

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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.