Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s top aide trial put off

HARARE: The terrorism trial of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's aide Roy Bennett was postponed today, in a case that has unleashed Zimbabwe's greatest political crisis since the unity government formed.

The delay comes a day after Tsvangirai suspended ties with "unreliable" President Robert Mugabe's camp after eight months of fragile partnership amid unresolved disputes over key posts and a crackdown on his supporters.

"It has been agreed by (all) concerned that the matter be postponed. Instead of starting Monday, it starts at a later date," one of Bennett's lawyers Beatrice Mtetwa told reporters outside the Harare high court.

The Zimbabwe high court yesterday ordered the release of Bennett, who was arrested in February on his return to Zimbabwe, after his bail was revoked by the Mutare magistrate's court two days earlier.

Tsvangirai earlier shelved cooperation with Mugabe's ZANU-PF, saying Bennett's case showed the "fiction of the credibility and integrity" of the partnership with his long-term rival.

"It has brought home the reality that as a movement, we have an unreliable and unrepentant partner," he told journalists.

"It is our right to disengage from a dishonest and unreliable partner." Tsvangirai said he will remain in government but only resume ties once the unity pact was fully in place and all disputes were resolved, which include key posts and a crackdown against his supporters.

The feisty Bennett, a white former coffee farmer whose land was expropriated under Mugabe's controversial land reforms, was released late Friday in eastern town Mutare. "He was met by his wife, (the) mayor of Mutare, and some family friends. He was in a jovial mood," said lawyer Trust Manda in Mutare.

Bennett's case immediately became a symbol of the challenges facing the power-sharing pact after his arrest in February, an hour before the unity government swearing-in. The MDC treasurer was detained on his return from three years in neighbouring South Africa where he fled after being implicated in a plot to kill Mugabe.

After several initial changes in the charges against him, he is accused of possessing weapons for purposes of insurgency, banditry, sabotage or terrorism, which the party says are trumped up. The state is pushing for his trial to start on October 27 but Mtetwa said the defence wanted more time to prepare. "We feel it's too early given that we were given only two days notice for trial commencement instead of the minimum 10 days. However we want this matter to be settled," she said A member of Bennett's legal team Harrison Nkomo earlier told AFP that he is ready to have his name cleared by the courts.

"He is more than ready for the trial. He has a strong character, he has gone through a lot. He came back into the country so that he can clear his name." Following Tsvangirai's move, the United States urged the international community to keep up pressure on Mugabe to implement the power-sharing pact underpinning the government.

"Everybody needs to continue to put pressure on Mr Mugabe to implement the agreement," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.

Canada also expressed concern, saying reports of ongoing politically motivated persecutions, including the rearrest of Bennett, were "deeply troubling".

"Canada reiterates its call for Zimbabwean authorities to respect human rights and the rule of law," said foreign minister Lawrence Cannon.

Tsvangirai and his long-time rival agreed to the unity government nearly a year after disputed polls, which saw Mugabe handed the presidency in a one-man run-off, plunged the country into deeper economic and political crisis.