Arrest of Mugabe rival threatens Zimbabwe's unity government

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's police forces detained Roy Bennett, an aide to his chief rival, and coalition partner, Morgan Tsvangirai on Wednesday, roiling the unity government that has helped stabilize Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/File
Roy Bennett (c.) is seen upon his release from prison in Mutare, Zimbabwe, in this March 12, 2009 file photo.

Roy Bennett, a white former coffee farmer whose land was confiscated by the Mugabe government, is the treasurer for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and a top aid to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the party's leader and Mugabe's chief domestic rival. On Wednesday he was ordered to prison to face trial on eight-month old charges of terrorism, insurgency, sabotage and banditry. A guilty verdict would carry a life sentence. No trial date has been set.

Mr. Bennett's detention is unlikely to cause a rupture in the power-sharing agreement between Mugabe's long-ruling ZANU-PF party and his bitter rivals in the Movement for Democratic Change, who won control of parliament in March 2008 elections. MDC insiders say that most members are advising their leaders to "stick it out" and to use their current powers to improve civil rights protection and make economic reforms.

But as the ZANU-PF continues to harass MDC supporters, arrest journalists and human rights activists, and prosecute political enemies like Bennett, pressure is growing within the MDC to either push back harder against Mugabe or pull out of the unity government altogether.

"The bigger problem is that the MDC is in the inclusive government, and they walked into the agreement, knowing full well that the courts were controlled left, right, and center by ZANU-PF," says Ozias Tungwarara, a political analyst at the Open Society Institute in Johannesburg. "Their assumption on joining the unity government was that they could bring back the rule of law little by little, but that has definitely not happened. Now, they face a tough decision: pull out, or come out fighting for their principles."

Legal troubles

Bennett – who is also a designated deputy minister for agriculture – was first arrested in February, when other members of his party were sworn in as ministers in the government of national unity. For much of the past eight months Bennett has been out on bail but Mugabe has steadfastly refused to swear him into office, saying that Bennett's court process must "take its course."

The detention of Bennett is yet another sign of trouble within the power-sharing agreement between MDC and Mugabe's party, and some MDC hardliners see it as a sign of bad faith.

"This latest action is deliberately provocative, unnecessary and motivated by hatred of a personality (Bennett)," the MDC said in a statement. "The MDC takes this matter as a serious attack on the integrity and honesty of the party; it is not acceptable and will not be taken lightly."

Bennett's legal troubles with the Mugabe government go back at least as far as 2000, when he got into a shoving match during parliamentary debate in the legislative chambers in Harare. During debate in 2004 over the emotional issue of Mugabe's land-redistribution program – in which pro-Mugabe supporters forced some 4,000 white commercial farmers from their lands – Bennett pushed Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa (a close advisor to Mugabe) to the ground, after Mr. Chinamasa called Bennett's ancestors "thieves and murderers."

In the current charges of terrorism, Bennett has been accused of paying Peter Hitschmann to buy grenades, rifles and other weapons, to attack cell-phone towers, and to carry out attacks against Zimbabwe police. Bennett denies those charges, but sought exile in South Africa two years ago because he lacked confidence in Zimbabwe's legal system.

The Bennett detention has already raised tensions between MDC and ZANU-PF.

On hearing of Bennett's detention, Prime Minister Tsvangirai suspended all further meetings with the ZANU PF members of the coalition government, pending consultation with MDC members on the next step. MDC insiders suggest that opinion is divided, although there appear to be more members urging Tsvangirai to "stick it out until the MDC has accomplished what it joined the government to do," as one party leader put it.

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