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Tense, Closed Atmosphere Surrounds Trial of Zimbabwe Opposition Leader - 2003-02-03

Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is on trial for allegedly plotting to assassinate President Robert Mugabe, a charge the opposition leader denies. Outside the court, two journalists were arrested, diplomats were manhandled, and there was pandemonium in the streets before the trial finally began.

The trial of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has begun, but few people are being allowed in to see it. Zimbabwe police refused to obey a high court order to allow journalists and members of the public into the treason trial of Mr. Tsvangirai and two of his colleagues.

Two reporters, freelance journalist Ish Mufandikwa and Pedzesai Ruhanya, a senior reporter for Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, the Daily News, were arrested by police outside high court.

The journalists, along with several opposition members of parliament, as well as the U.S. ambassador and European diplomats, were waiting outside the main doors to the high court complex before the start of the trial.

Police initially refused access to them all, but finally allowed Joseph Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador, into court. They manhandled a British diplomat and refused her entry. Members of the European community went to Zimbabwe's department of foreign affairs to register a protest.

There was plenty of space in Court A, where the trial is taking place, but police told journalists and the public the court was full.

The head of the defense team, South African advocate George Bizos, made an application to high court Judge Paddington Garwe to allow members of the public into the court and Judge Garwe immediately granted the order.

Police then allowed two foreign journalists into the court because they had current press cards. But other members of the foreign press corps who have not yet been accredited by the Zimbabwe government and journalists from the domestic privately-owned press were turned away.

The police told a group of British and American journalists that they did not care what the judge said and would only take orders from the commissioner of police.

This is the first time in Zimbabwe's history that journalists and members of the public were turned away from a public trial.

Mr. Tsvangirai, along with Welshman Ncube, the secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, and parliament member Renson Gasela are charged with plotting the assassination of President Robert Mugabe and a coup d'etat, before last year's presidential election.

A videotape to be introduced as evidence allegedly shows the defendants discussing Mr. Mugabe's assassination. The videotape emerged a month before the presidential election last March, in which Mr. Mugabe defeated Mr. Tsvangirai.

The opposition leader denies the charges, calling them politically motivated.

If convicted, the three men face the death penalty for treason.