HARARE (Reuters) - A court in southern Zimbabwe ruled on Friday that an opposition official was not guilty of trying to topple President Emmerson Mnangagwa, moments after proceedings were halted when police fired teargas to disperse supporters, his lawyer said.
Job Sikhala, who faced up to 20 years in jail if he had been convicted, was arrested in July last year on charges of attempting to subvert Mnangagwa’s government.
But Sikhala, who is the deputy national chairman and lawmaker of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), denied the accusation.
He had asked the court to drop the charges saying the state had failed to prove he had a case to answer.
Lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said High Court Judge Garainesu Mawadze in Masvingo town, 300 km (210 miles) south of the capital Harare, had found Sikhala not guilty.
The state’s evidence hinged on a video that circulated on social media last year in which Sikhala appeared to tell supporters at a rally that his party would ovethrow Mnangagwa before the next elections in 2023.
“The judge ruled that political commentary is allowed by the constitution and that his utterances do not disclose an offence. He has been acquitted,” Mtetwa told Reuters.
Outside the court, police had fired teargas to disperse supporters of Sikhala and fumes filtered into the court room, forcing a suspension of proceedings.
Dozens of government opponents have faced subversion charges, with critics saying this shows the government is muzzling the opposition by reverting to harsh security laws from the era of Robert Mugabe, who died last September.
Political tension has increased as Zimbabwe grapples with its worst economic crisis in a decade.
Zimbabwe remains a deeply polarised country, with the MDC refusing to recognise Mnangagwa’s victory in the 2018 presidential vote, that was expected to draw a line on the country’s history of contested election outcome. (Reporting by Nelson Banya, Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe, editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Angus MacSwan)