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Zimbabwe Trial: State Witness' Testimony Inconclusive - 2003-02-21

In Zimbabwe, the treason trial of the country's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is at the end of its third week. On Friday, the state's main witness admitted he could not recall Mr. Tsvangirai using the words murder, assassinate and coup d'etat in a meeting with him that was secretly filmed. The videotape of that meeting is the state's key piece of evidence against Mr. Tsvangirai, who is accused of planning to assassinate President Robert Mugabe ahead of presidential elections last year.

Canadian businessman Ari Ben-Menashe said he could not remember - a phrase he has used often at the trial - whether Mr. Tsvangirai directly asked for his assistance in the assassination of Mr. Mugabe.

But Mr. Ben-Menashe suggested to the court that it didn't really matter whether the opposition leader used those specific words. The witness said that anyone who watched the whole videotape of a meeting between him and Mr. Tsvangirai and two other opposition officials would conclude that the three officials wanted to enlist his help in eliminating President Mugabe.

The videotape was shown at Friday's hearing, but was largely inaudible to journalists and members of the public packed into the courtroom.

But the lawyer for the defense, George Bizos, told the court that nowhere in the videotape, or in a transcript of it prepared by the state, is there evidence that Mr. Tsvangirai asked Mr. Ben-Menashe to murder or assassinate Mr. Mugabe, nor is there any evidence that he asked for his help in carrying out a coup.

Mr. Tsvangirai and his two colleagues, Welshman Ncube and Renson Gasela, deny the charges and say Mr. Ben-Menashe is trying to frame them. The three were meeting with Mr. Ben-Menashe because they had hired him to lobby for them in the United States. They did not know he was also working for the Zimbabwe government.

Court records show that Mr. Ben-Menashe was paid $615,000 by the Zimbabwe government. But he says the money was strictly for political and public relations work, and not to entrap Mr. Tsvangirai.

He says he did not receive any payment from the government for secretly taping Mr. Tsvangirai and providing the tape to the government.

Mr. Tsvangirai was charged with treason two weeks before he ran against - and lost to - Mr. Mugabe in Zimbabwe's presidential election last March.

If convicted as charged, the three could face the death penalty.

At the end of Friday's proceedings, the judge adjourned the trial for a week to allow Mr. Ben-Menashe to go home to Canada for personal business.