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Conviction of MDC Legislators Threatens Party's Parliament Majority

Two legislators from the Movement for Democratic Change have been convicted in eastern Zimbabwe, and another is on trial for charges defense lawyers say are trumped up and designed to deprive their clients of their parliament seats. Any Zimbabwe legislator convicted of more than six months in prison automatically loses his seat in the legislature.

Mathias Mlambo was arrested last month for allegedly obstructing a policeman at the funeral of an MDC supporter. Police say they were at the funeral looking for a suspect, whom so far, has not been named.

With what lawyers and observers have called unusual speed, Mlambo was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to 10 months in prison by magistrate Samuel Zuze at a lower regional court in Chipinge, near the Mozambique border.

One of Mlambo's defense witnesses was the local priest who presided over the funeral and a mourner. The state's witnesses were two policemen.

Zuze is the same official hearing a case in which MDC parliament member Meki Makuyiana is accused of kidnapping two people last December. Seven members of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF Party gave evidence against him Tuesday when the state closed its case.

The third MDC parliament member prosecuted in the same district, Lynette Karenyi, has appealed to the High Court after being convicted of fraudulent nomination papers for last year's parliamentary election. She was charged eight months after the poll and found guilty.

Zimbabwe's parliamentary rules say no legislator can remain in parliament if convicted of crimes and sentenced to six months or more in jail.

The Movement for Democratic Change, which is loyal to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has a one-seat parliament majority.

Magistrate Zuze has also been busy in the Chipinge court in the state's fast-track prosecution of white farmers, which accelerated after a government of national unity in February was sworn in.

Commercial Farmers Union President Trevor Gifford was found guilty by Zuze of blocking Zanu-PF members from hacking down his tree plantation. Gifford says he has tried, without success, to obtain a copy of the judgment against him.

He says he cannot return to his home in eastern Zimbabwe where he is accused of trespassing on his coffee, fruit and nut-tree farm. Two thirds of the trees have been chopped out.

Tuesday, Ray West, who is in his mid 80's, was on trial in Chipinge for living on his son's farm. He has already been forced to leave his home in the same district.

More than a third of Zimbabwe's remaining white farmers have been placed under court prosecution since the inclusive government was formed in February. Zuze, other magistrates, and officials in the Mugabe government have been repeatedly accused of not following the rule of Zimbabwe law in the land seizures and the prosecutions.

Since President Mugabe started his compulsory land-reform program to redistribute white-owned farms in 2000, the country's economy has collapsed and Zimbabwe has gone from net food exporter to needing international food aid.