Zimbabwe weighs meaning of treason trial acquittals

New doubt about the root cause of Zimbabwe's political turmoil arose this week as the nation's High Court acquitted seven political opponents of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of treason charges.

The treason trial was widely viewed as a test of the prime minister's claim that his chief political opponent, Joshua Nkomo, and Nkomo's ZAPU party were involved in a bid to overthrow the government.

The court's clearing of the ZAPU members of treason charges sowed suspicion that the government acted too rashly against Mr. Mugabe's political opponents. Analysts say the government's action may have fed the violence in western Matabeleland and helped to create a dissident movement now tearing at the country's fabric.

The government made its dissatisfaction with the ruling clear by immediately detaining those acquitted.

All along, skeptics wondered if the coup allegations were motivated to some extent by Mugabe's stated aim of achieving a one-party state. The country is certainly closer to that than it was last year. The court case itself is considered probably the most important yet for Zimbabwe, which this month is celebrating its third anniversary of independence.

Some analysts say the government may have made some modest gains despite its court loss by putting forward at least a ''moral case'' that the government was threatened. Prosecutors also obtained one conviction - on a charge of helping to transport guns to property owned by ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's Union).

The key political features of the court's ruling were the acquittals of Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku, commanders in Nkomo's former guerrilla army.

Observers say the government would be loathe to see Dabengwa, in particular, go free because of his ability to rally dissidents.

The treason case appeared strongest against Dabengwa. The government's chief evidence against the former guerrilla - dubbed by whites the ''black Russian'' because of his intelligence training in Moscow - was a letter he wrote to the Soviet KGB shortly after independence.

The letter asked for ''further assistance'' against ''imperialist intrigues'' - a reference to what Dabengwa saw as Mugabe's overly pro-West leanings. Dabengwa said he sent the letter because ZAPU believed that just before independence Mugabe's party was abandoning principles adopted by the joint Patriotic Front alliance. The judge ruled that the letter was not treasonable.

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