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Zimbabwe Opposition Leader Acquitted of Treason Charges - 2004-10-15

The leader of Zimbabwe's largest opposition party was acquitted of treason charges Friday by a High Court in Harare. The judge said their was not enough credible evidence to convict the politician, Morgan Tsvangirai. But analysts in Zimbabwe and opposition activists say while they are celebrating the acquittal, it's still too early to conclude that Zimbabwe's justice system has returned to independence.

Morgan Tsvangirai was found not guilty of plotting to assassinate President Mugabe and stage a coup. The not guilty verdict was unexpected in Zimbabwe, where the ruling party allegedly interferes regularly in political cases.

Still, Mr. Tsvangirai says celebrations to mark his acquittal must be tempered with reality.

"We feel relieved," he said. "I think it was unexpected because of the political environment in which we operate. But we cannot celebrate yet, because the political climate has neither improved nor are there any signs of improvement."

There was no immediate reaction to the verdict from the Zimbabwe government.

Zimbabwe is experiencing its worst economic and political crisis since independence in 1980. Human rights activists say an increasing number of people are being wrongfully arrested and taken before the courts. Since 2000, experienced judges have been intimidated and hounded out of office by government officials and their supporters. President Robert Mugabe has replaced them with judges who legal experts say are closely allied to him or his party. Some of them have allegedly been rewarded with farms grabbed from white commercial farmers under the country's land reform program.

Eric Matinenga, a member of Mr. Tsvangirai's defense team, welcomed the verdict, but also says Zimbabwe's justice system remains troubled.

"I am not trying to minimize the fairness of the verdict which has been handed down today but on the other hand I think it was going to be very difficult to convict," Mr. Matinenga said. "I could not see how a judge would have convicted under the circumstances. I think this is a good judgment. I'd like to say this is a beginning. I would not like to say we have turned round the corner."

Mr. Tsvangirai was alleged to have tried to hire a Canadian consultant to have President Mugabe killed so he could take power. The judge said the consultant was working for the Zimbabwe government, and tried to entrap Mr. Tsvangirai. Even so, the judge concluded Mr. Tsvangirai never asked for any attack on the president.

Treason is a capital offense in Zimbabwe. Mr. Tsvangirai still faces another treason charge for calling an illegal five-day strike last June.

But his attorney says this acquittal means Mr. Tsvangirai will get back his travel documents, which he surrendered as part of his bail, and will be allowed travel abroad. That could be important as the Zimbabwe opposition leader tries to build credibility and support around Africa and elsewhere in the run-up to next year's scheduled election.