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Major Weapons Trial Begins In Zimbabwe

The trial of a White Zimbabwean accused of illegal possession of automatic weapons finally began this week in Mutare after being delayed over legal technicalities. Michael Hitschmann has been accused by the state of trying to hire a Zimbabwe army officer to assassinate senior businessmen and white farmers loyal to the ruling Zanu PF. The weapons charges carry a life sentence.

The trial of Michael Hitschmann continues today, a day after the state's key witness told a packed courtroom that Hitschmann approached him and asked that he join a organization to overthrow the government.

Army Major Israel Phiri testified that Hitschmann tried to recruit him for a shadowy organization, the Zimbabwe Freedom Movement, which was launched in London five years ago. He said the organization, in addition to overthrowing the government, planned to assassinate several top businessman and white farmers loyal to the ruling Zanu PF.

Phiri claims he immediately reported Hitschmann's plans to authorities.

The government accuses Hitschmann of possession of 11 automatic weapons, thousands of rounds of ammunition and other military material. No one is allowed to hold automatic weapons in Zimbabwe without special permission. He was arrested in March and refused bail.

In defense documents submitted to the court, Hitschmann admits he was in possession of automatic weapons but says he is a registered gun dealer, and was going to hand them over to the police. He says the weapons were given to him by fearful white farmers who fled their land in 2004 and 2005.

Forty-six-year-old Hitschmann used to be a member of the part-time voluntary police reserve in his hometown Mutare. He claims he assisted the police in suppressing trade unions in 1997.

Harare High Court Justice Alpheus Chitakunya will hear testimony from Hitschmann who claims he was tortured after his arrest, including being kicked twice in his groin and having his buttocks burned by lighted cigarettes. He will challenge the legality of his confession, saying it was extracted through torture.

This case is one of the most serious involving weapons in Zimbabwe in the last 20 years, according to legal analysts.

Two other men, both opposition supporters who were arrested with Hitschmann, and who allegedly have disappeared after being freed on bail, claimed in a previous court hearing that they were also tortured in detention.

A former opposition legislator, Roy Bennett fled the country after Hitschmann's arrest and sought asylum in South Africa.

A serving MDC legislator, Giles Mutsekwa, also arrested in connection in the same case, was released but has not been charged and is still in Zimbabwe.