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Lawyers in Zimbabwe Weapons-Terror Case Ask Judge to Recuse Himself

Lawyers for Zimbabwean Senator Roy Bennett ask judge presiding over the politically charged case to recuse himself.

Lawyers for Zimbabwean Senator Roy Bennett, accused of possessing weapons for purposes of terrorism, on Thursday asked the judge presiding over the politically charged case to recuse himself citing a previous ruling regarding the star prosecution witness.

Bennett, treasurer for the Movement for Democratic Change formation of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, was arrested in February as the national unity government was being formed and his case has become a flash point within the government. President Robert Mugabe has refused to swear Bennett in as deputy minister of agriculture.

Lead defense lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, a prominent human rights defender, said her team learned only yesterday that Judge Chinembiri Bhunu handled a bail application filed by Peter Michael Hitschmann in 2006 when he was arrested in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate President Mugabe during a visit to Mutare, Manicaland.

State prosecutors intend to call Hitschmann as a key witness in the Bennett case though Hitschmann says statements he made incriminating Bennett were coerced.

In his 2006 ruling Bhunu dismissed any presumption of innocence on the part of Hitschmann saying evidence for his conviction weighed too heavily. Mtetwa's team wants him to recuse himself in Bennett's case given that the two cases are closely related.

The judge promised a response to the motion by Monday.

Bhunu yesterday turned down a defense motion to bar testimony by Hitschmann on grounds that his testimony was coerced and conflicts with other statements he has made since.

Mtetwa told VOA Studio 7 reporter Sandra Nyaira that Bhunu’s presence on the bench may be prejudicial to her client.

Commenting on the defense request for Bhunu to recuse himself, Manicaland Legal Practitioners Association Chairperson Johane Zviuya said that if Justice Bhunu removes himself from the case it will be a great day for justice in Zimbabwe.

Elsewhere, a magistrate in Victoria Falls threw out charges against Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions President Lovemore Matombo and four other union officials accused of violating the Public Order and Security Act by holding an unauthorized meeting.

Matombo and his colleagues were arrested Sunday while addressing a consultative meeting with other ZCTU officials in the resort town and charged with holding a public meeting without the approval of police.

But Magistrate Richard Ramaboea said unions are not obliged to seek police clearance to hold meetings.

Attorney Kucaca Phulu, who represented the unionists, says the arrest of his clients was intended to intimidate the union.

Ten months after the installation of the unity government, MDC supporters and civil society members say politically motivated arrests of activists have continued.

Observers say that while political violence has declined. police and members of the judiciary remain partisan in their administration of the rule of law.

For a closer look, VOA Studio 7 reporter Patience Rusere turned to Kumbirai Mafunda, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and political science lecturer Joseph Kurebwa of the University of Zimbabwe.

Mafunda said the judicial system including the police remains highly partisan as regards members of pro-democracy groups.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...