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Tsvangirai: Treason Charge is Zimbabwe Government Conspiracy - 2002-02-25

Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, says he has been charged with treason. The Movement for Democratic Change leader is said to have been secretly videotaped at a meeting in Canada allegedly discussing President Robert Mugabe's assassination.

Mr. Tsvangirai told a news conference he has been charged with treason, after being questioned by police for three hours. He said he was allowed to go home without having to pay bail or being brought before a court.

He faces a possible death sentence if convicted.

Mr. Tsvangirai has strongly denied the accusation and says the videotape has probably been tampered with.

He accuses the Zimbabwe secret police of being behind what he calls a "conspiracy by the government." He told the news conference that "Mr. Mugabe is a man who has run out of ideas."

This is the second time Mr. Tsvangirai has been accused of treason. 18 months ago, he was declared innocent by the Supreme Court for allegedly publicly calling for the violent overthrow of Mr. Mugabe.

In the past two years, he has frequently been detained and harassed by police and in the latest incident he escaped unhurt after police fired on his car.

His lawyer, Innocent Chagonda, told the news conference that if the police were serious, they would have jailed the MDC leader and brought him before a court as soon as possible.

Mr. Tsvangirai said police told him they would, in his words, "follow up the matter."

He says the motive behind the treason accusation is to discredit him politically because he is the main challenger to Mr. Mugabe in the March 9 and 10 presidential election.

Mr. Tsvangirai says he has met officials of the political consulting group, Dickens and Madson, three or four times, but never mentioned or discussed killing Mr. Mugabe.

The grainy Canadian videotape shows four people holding a discussion around a table. One of them is a black man - who the public relations firm says is Mr. Tsvangirai. The word "elimination" is said during the discussions and allegedly is used in relation to getting rid of Mr. Mugabe.

Ari Ben-Menashe, the senior executive of Dickens and Madson, has said the company initially thought of working for the MDC, but immediately dropped the idea when Mr. Tsvangirai allegedly suggested killing the Zimbabwean president.

Mr. Ben-Menashe has been linked in North America in the past to dubious dealings involving international conspiracy theories. He admits he has had what he calls "a relationship" with the Zimbabwe government, but has declined to say what form this has taken and how long it has been going on.

An independent media research group in Zimbabwe, the Media Monitoring Project, says there is a strong possibility that the assassination videotape has been doctored.