A Zimbabwe judge has overturned a decision that barred jailed opposition legislator Roy Bennett from running in the general election because he is a criminal. This was the first judgment delivered by Zimbabwe's new Election Court ahead of a general election on March 31.

Judge Tendai Uchena ruled Tuesday that Zimbabwe's electoral authorities illegally refused Mr. Bennett's nomination as a candidate.

Election officials barred Mr. Bennett from standing when his nomination papers were presented last month, claiming that he was a criminal.

Judge Uchena said that Zimbabwe's constitution protects Mr. Bennett because he was punished by parliament and not a court of law.

Therefore, his judgment reads, Mr. Bennett is qualified by law to stand for election.

Mr. Bennett, is serving a year with hard labor in a rural prison after being found guilty of contempt of parliament by ruling ZANU-PF legislators after he knocked over a cabinet minister during a heated debate in parliament.

Judge Uchena also postponed election in Mr. Bennett's voting district until April 30, a month after the general election for 120 parliamentary seats.

Mr. Bennett's wife Heather reluctantly agreed to stand in his place after his candidacy was refused at nomination court last month.

She welcomed Judge Uchena's ruling and said her husband would be pleased and that he would be standing for election from his prison cell. She said she would continue campaigning for him.

Mr. Bennett could be released at the end of June if he is given three months remission for good behavior.

Mr. Bennett was elected in 2000 as a candidate of the newly formed opposition group, Movement for Democratic Change, in a poverty stricken district in southeastern Zimbabwe. He received a 30 percent majority in the district, which had been a stronghold of the ruling ZANU-PF. Human rights monitors say he is among the most persecuted of Zimbabwe's opposition MPs and he and his associates have regularly been arrested and tortured.

Lawyers representing Mr. Bennett said Tuesday as far as they can tell new electoral laws provide no opportunity for the state to appeal this judgment. The Zimbabwe government has so far not reacted to the judgment.