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Zimbabwe Opposition Braces for Verdict in Leader's Trial  - 2004-10-14

Zimbabwe's High Court will announce the verdict in the treason trial of the leader of the country's largest opposition party Friday. Critics of the proceedings are bracing for the decision, saying the fact that the trial even happened is indicative of the extent to which the judiciary has been politicized.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change is accused of plotting to assassinate President Robert Mugabe and stage a coup.

The charge stems from a series of meetings Mr. Tsvangirai held with Ari Ben Menashe of the Canadian political consultancy Dickens and Madson. One of the meetings, held in December 2001, was taped on a grainy video with bad audio. Audio tapes of an earlier meeting are also barely audible. The state alleges the tapes contain evidence of Mr. Tsvangerai asking the consultancy to "eliminate" President Robert Mugabe.

Ari Ben Menashe, whom Mr. Tsvangirai approached not knowing his company was already on the payroll of the Zimbabwean government, testified against Mr.Tsvangirai. Mr. Ben Menashe was described as a liar by Mr. Tsvangirai's defense and the opposition leader's supporters say Mr. Ben Menashe has a long history of shady dealings all over the world. The chairman of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, Joseph James, says the trial should not have proceeded on the basis of a tape that, because of its poor quality, could be manipulated. He added that Mr. Ben Menashe, the state's star witness "started off with a credibility problem which increased during the trial."

Mr. James also says allegations that Paddington Garwe, the judge in the case, is a beneficiary of the government's chaotic land reform program are a cause for concern.

Critics of Zimbabwe's legal system say that since 2000 experienced judges considered to be too independent by the government have been intimidated and hounded out of office. They say President Robert Mugabe has replaced them with judges who are closely allied to him or his party. Some of them have allegedly been rewarded with farms grabbed from white commercial farmers ostensibly for the resettlement of landless blacks.

A report by an International Bar Association delegation which visited Zimbabwe in early 2001 said the government's refusal to obey court orders was undermining the authority of the courts and encouraging a culture of lawlessness in Zimbabwe.

University of Zimbabwe law lecture Lovemore Madhuku says the judicial system in Zimbabwe has been hugely compromised.

"Once a case has become politicized, 99 percent of the situations are that the decision will be politically convenient," said Lovemore Madhuku. "So they make a decision which serves the political interests of the establishment because judges have themselves become part of the establishment, especially after the land processes where judges were allocated huge pieces of land."

The judge in the Tsvangirai case has been assisted in the trial by two assessors and the three must deliver a majority decision. Mr. James says the outcome therefore also depends on whether the assessors are truly independent. He said the judge has "a great deal of influence" on the assessors.