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Zimbabwe High Court Begins Hearing Challenge to 2002 Presidential Election - 2003-11-03

In Zimbabwe, the opposition court challenge to the 2002 presidential election is underway.

The crowd on the first day of the landmark hearing was so large that Judge Ben Hlatshawayo directed that proceedings be moved to the largest courtroom in the High Court complex.

The case started with Jeremy Gauntlett, the lawyer for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, outlining his client's legal and constitutional arguments for nullification of the election result.

Mr. Tsvangirai is the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). He lost the disputed election to President Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Tsvangirai is alleging gross irregularities, including abuse of power by the president, and the use of violence and intimidation by the ruling party during the March 2002 election, which many observers said was neither free nor fair.

Mr. Gauntlett said the initial phase of the case is divided into two sessions, with the first scheduled to last until the end of this week. The second session might never be heard if the court sets aside the election result on the basis of the arguments put forward during this week's session. "The evidence regarding violence and intimidation will follow in a second session, if we fail to show that this election fundamentally was unconstitutional because the president took powers as a contestant that he was never allowed to take," he said.

The opposition's spokesman for legal affairs, David Coltart, said there are strong constitutional and legal arguments for the court to nullify the election result. But he pointed out that it might not be entirely up to the judge to make a decision. "As you know, the judiciary in Zimbabwe has been under great strain in the past two years. We hope that the judge will listen very carefully to the arguments presented, and we trust that he will come to a fair decision. But we have no doubt that he will be placed under enormous political pressure, and we hope that he can resist those political pressures," he said.

By the end of the first day of this, Zimbabwe's first-ever challenge of a presidential election result, the opposition lawyer, Mr. Gauntlett, was still making his presentation. Government lawyers are expected to begin their arguments as soon as he finishes, perhaps on Tuesday.

President Mugabe denied any wrongdoing and said he was legitimately re-elected.

This week, the Financial Gazzette weekly reports legal documents submitted by the president's attorneys say the opposition arguments are flawed, because they bring in extraneous legal and constitutional issues, rather than concentrating on the conduct of the election itself. The newspaper says the president's legal team will ask the court to throw out many of the opposition's arguments.