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Activists, Analysts Examine Acquittal of Zimbabwe Opposition Leader - 2004-10-15


Human rights activists and political analysts in South Africa are welcoming the acquittal of Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was found not guilty of treason by the Harare High Court on Friday. But they are cautious about taking too much satisfaction from the verdict.

While analysts and human rights campaigners are welcoming the acquittal of Morgan Tsvangirai, they are also aware that the Zimbabwean opposition leader still faces another treason trial on unrelated charges. So they have been circumspect in their praise for the court decision, despite the joyful celebrations by Mr. Tsvangirai's supporters in Harare.

The head of the South Africa chapter of the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International is Samkelo Mokhine.

"Amnesty International welcomes the acquittal of Morgan Tsvangirai," he said. "We were of the opinion that the case was based on a very weak basis. The trial seemed to be a politically motivated one that formed part of the bigger attack on civil society and the opposition that has been happening in Zimbabwe."

Mr. Mokhine says Amnesty International has long had serious concerns about the impartiality and independence of the Zimbabwean judiciary, which he says has been systematically undermined by the government. He says this verdict indicates that there are still, in his words, "people of integrity on the bench in Zimbabwe."

But some analysts believe this high-profile case does not represent the overall condition of the Zimbabwean judicial system. And some say the verdict will help the Zimbabwean government more than it will help Mr. Tsvangirai.

Regional analyst Noria Mashumba at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies is a former Zimbabwean prosecutor and human-rights worker. She believes the Harare government will use Mr. Tsvangirai's acquittal to counter the criticisms of the international community.

"It's a plus for the government, in terms of the general allegations that the judiciary is no longer impartial, that it is an instrument used by the government," she said. "The not guilty verdict for me looks like it's a very strategic move on the part of the government because it will give a reflection that the judiciary is impartial after all."

Even so, Ms. Mashumba believes the verdict is what she calls a "landmark" for Mr. Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change. She thinks it will enable the party and its embattled leader to devote more attention to other matters, most notably the general election scheduled for early next year.

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