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Credibility of Key Witness Questioned in Zimbabwe Treason Trial - 2003-03-10

The treason trial of Zimbabwe's opposition leader got even more complicated Monday. The state's main witness in the trial admitted in the High Court that he has been charged with beating up his wife in Canada.

The witness, Montreal businessman Ari Ben-Menashe, repeatedly interrupted court proceedings when questioned by the defense lawyer about charges that he beat his wife. Mr. Ben-Menashe is the key witness against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and the defense has been working since the trial began to challenge his credibility.

Mr. Ben-Menashe explained to the court that his wife charged him with assault as revenge when he had her arrested in the United States for kidnapping their daughter from the family home last year. He said he will prove in court, in Canada, that he did not assault his wife.

The bizarre evidence emerged in a trial that has become increasingly extraordinary, and which regularly reduces people in the public benches to laughter.

Mr. Ben-Menashe's domestic affairs became known because he had earlier sought permission from the court to return home to Canada on an urgent personal matter. To support his request, he had submitted an affidavit that included information about his pending divorce.

He received permission and went to Canada last week, but is now back in Harare.

Mr. Ben-Menashe is into his fifth week of cross-examination by lawyers defending Mr. Tsvangirai and two colleagues from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Welshman Ncube and Renson Gasela.

The three are accused of plotting to eliminate President Robert Mugabe ahead of presidential elections last year. Mr. Ben-Menashe, a political consultant, claims the three sought his help in carrying out the alleged plot. The treason charges, if proved, carry the death sentence.

The three deny the charges, saying they are being framed by the government.

The thrust of the defense cross examination has been to prove that a video recording of a meeting between Mr. Tsvangirai and Mr. Ben-Menashe, in which they allegedly discussed the assassination plot, was commissioned by the Zimbabwe government to discredit the opposition leader before the presidential elections.

Mr. Ben-Menashe claims Mr. Tsvangirai approached him for assistance. But he said, when he learned of the alleged assassination plot, he was duty bound to produce evidence for the Zimbabwe government, as a crime was being planned. That was why, he said, he made the videotape. He said he later became a consultant for the Zimbabwe government.

The defense says his only commission from the Zimbabwe government was to entrap Mr. Tsvangirai.

The opposition leader says he consulted Mr. Ben-Menashe to get his help in lobbying for donations and political support from the United States.

Cross-examination of Mr. Ben-Menashe ended Monday, although the defense said it will apply to have him recalled.

As the case against the three opposition leaders continues, other members of the opposition are being detained. The state-run Herald newspaper quotes police as saying 28 members of the Movement for Democratic Change were arrested Sunday in two Harare suburbs.

The paper says 21 opposition members were detained for allegedly holding an illegal meeting in the suburb of Kuwadzana, and seven others were detained in the Highfield suburb for attacking supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party.

The arrests came ahead of two key by-elections in districts that are considered opposition strongholds.