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US Journalist Awaits Trial in Zimbabwe - 2002-06-14

A trial will resume Monday in Zimbabwe of a correspondent for Britain's Guardian newspaper on charges he violated Zimbabwe's tough new media laws. The trial moved temporarily Friday to a hotel where the court tried to find a news story on The Guardian's Internet Web site.

The Zimbabwe government's only documentary evidence against correspondent Andrew Meldrum is a report that it says was downloaded from The Guardian Internet Web site by police in Harare. The document is a report, with Mr. Meldrum's byline, that says a Zimbabwe woman was beheaded in front of her children by supporters of President Robert Mugabe.

After the report was published, the government arrested Mr. Meldrum under Zimbabwe's strict Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Charges against him say he abused his journalistic privilege and published a falsehood. Mr. Meldrum has pleaded not guilty.

The trial is the first since the new media legislation was signed into law after Mr. Mugabe's disputed election victory. And it is widely seen as a test case for freedom of the press.

In court Friday, prosecutors argued that the Internet report was available to Zimbabweans who could download it onto their computers. Mr. Meldrum's defense lawyers argue an Internet report is not reliable as evidence.

The magistrate, Godfrey Macheyo, moved his court to a computer at a five-star hotel in Harare, and a policeman downloaded The Guardian's Web site. However, the news report in question for was not there. Prosecutors say they do not have a printed copy of The Guardian newspaper of April 27 when Mr. Meldrum's report was published in Britain.

The magistrate said he will rule Monday on the prosecutors' request that the Internet version of Mr. Meldrum's report be admissible as evidence. If found guilty, Mr. Meldrum could be fined or sentenced to up to two years in prison.