Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai canceled a meeting of the Council of Ministers late Wednesday in protest of the indictment on terrorism charges and imprisonment of Roy Bennett, treasurer of Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.
A magistrate in the eastern city of Mutare indicted Bennett, a member of the Senate for the Tsvangirai MDC and deputy agriculture minister designate since February, on charges that he possessed weapons for the purpose of banditry and terrorism. The magistrate remanded Bennett, a former white commercial farmer, to prison pending his High Court trial.
The MDC issued a statement later Wednesday describing the latest twist in the Bennett saga as "deliberately provocative, unnecessary and motivated by the hatred of personality" that would seriously affect the stability of the eight-month-old unity government.
Tsvangirai spokesman James Maridadi said the prime minister canceled the council meeting when he could not obtain a meeting with President Robert Mugabe to discuss the latest developments in the Bennett case, which has long troubled the government.
“The PM tried on countless occasions to reach the president for an urgent meeting to discuss the detention but he got no response. He thus told the ministers that he was canceling the meeting to attend to the more urgent and pressing issue of Bennett,” Maridadi told VOA.
Magistrate Lucy Mungwari rendered the decision in response to a motion filed by prosecutors seeking the indictment and raising the stakes in the high-profile case. Police arrested Bennett in February even as the national unity government was being constituted in Harare. He was trying to leave the country having learned that he was being sought for arrest despite assurances he would not be molested if he returned from exile in South Africa.
The weapons charges are in connection with an alleged 2006 plot to kill President Robert Mugabe during a visit to Mutare. Police arrested several MDC officials but the case fell apart and only one person, former constable Peter Michael Hitschmann, was prosecuted and sentenced to four years - serving a little more than three - on weapons charges.
Hitschmann refused this year to testify against Bennett, saying there was no link.
Bennett and the MDC have maintained the charges were trumped up for political motives.
Bennett's lawyer, Trust Maanda, commented on today's decision, noting that the court in legal terms exercised "dominis litis," or control of where the case would go, adding that the indictment came as no surprise to Bennett's defenders.
Political analyst Farai Maguwu told reporter Patience Rusere of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the indictment and re-arrest puts additional strain on the unity government, and it is up to the MDC and Mr. Tsvangirai to take a firm stand against judicial persecution.
In Harare, meanwhile, the trial of human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama on contempt of court charges began on Wednesday, as correspondent Thomas Chiripasi reported.
Muchadehama was charged in connection with his defense of several MDC officials and a journalist who the state alleges were improperly released on bail through the connivance of a court clerk, Constance Gambara, who is standing trial with Muchadehama.