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MDC Leader on Trial for Treason

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A top executive of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is on trial for treason in the Harare High Court. The high-profile trial comes at a sensitive moment in Zimbabwe's fragile 10-month-old power sharing government.

Movement for Democratic Change treasurer-general and deputy agriculture minister designate Roy Bennett was in the dock as weapons and ammunition to be used as evidence were wheeled into court. State prosecutors allege the arms would have been used to try to oust President Robert Mugabe from power three years ago.

The state and the defense presented opening arguments to Judge Chenembri Bhunu.

The state, represented by Attorney-General Johannes Tomana, appealed for a ruling denying a defense motion that asks for a prosecution witness to be barred from giving evidence.

The state witness, Michael Hitschmann, was tried and acquitted three years ago on the same terrorism charges Bennett faces. The defense says Hitschmann has "disowned" a confession he made in 2006 that was also ruled inadmissible by his trial judge. The defense says the statement did not implicate Bennett.

Last week, a Harare lawyer on the Bennett legal team applied for Hitschmann to be removed as a state witness. The attorney was then arrested, held for 48 hours, and is on bail accused of obstructing justice.

Judge Bhunu adjourned the trial until Wednesday when he said he will make a ruling on the prosecution's request.

Others charged with Hitschmann, who used to be a gun dealer in the eastern city Mutare, were released before being tried. Hitschmann served three years in prison for possession of unlicensed weapons.

MDC leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, partially disengaged from the unity government last month, citing Bennett's arrest as one of several unresolved issues from the September 2008 political agreement that led to formation of the unity government.

During the weekend, Mr. Tsvangirai called for an end to what he said was Bennett's "malicious" prosecution. He also called for President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF to treat the MDC as equals in the unity government.

"If you want this inclusive government to deliver hope to the people of Zimbabwe, then you must regard the MDC as an equal partner, not as a junior partner. We are not a junior partner when we have got the mandate of the people, Mr. Tsvangirai said.

The prime minister returned to the unity government last Thursday after South Africa said it would monitor progress towards resolution of outstanding issues within 30 days.

Terrorism charges carry a potential death sentence in Zimbabwe. Mr. Tsvangirai and Finance Minister Tendai Biti have been previously charged with treason.