In a legal challenge to Zimbabwe's general election, Judge Rita Makarau has ruled that President Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF Party used food and fear of starvation to buy votes earlier this year.  The judgment is the first case in which a member of Mr. Mugabe's administration has confirmed that food has been abused for political reasons.

Judge Makarau heard a case earlier this month brought by a losing candidate who stood for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in which he claimed that the poll in his district had been neither free nor fair.

Several witnesses told how they had been fearful of voting for the MDC because local Zanu PF leaders warned them that they would not be given government food aid if they voted for the opposition.

In a written judgment made available at the Harare High Court late last week Judge Makarau said, "It was made clear to the villagers that supporting the MDC meant going without food ... a graphic and rather sad example of how the villagers were made to exchange their right to belong to a party of their choice for food.  Villagers were threatened with the withholding of food if they supported the MDC."

She said several youths had been forced to exchange their MDC t-shirts for government food handouts at a public meeting before the election.

The district in southeast Zimbabwe had few crops and poor food security before the March general election.  In addition, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) and other donors were no longer distributing food aid because they were told to stop by Mr. Mugabe six-months earlier.

Before the election in which Zanu PF increased its majority in parliament, several human-rights monitors and journalists reported that government food was being withheld from opposition supporters in rural areas around the country.  The government denied the accusations.

The Zimbabwe government is the only legal trader of the staple food, corn, and it controls who can and cannot buy it.

Zanu-PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira said he could not comment on the judgment because he had not read it.

Judge Makarau also ruled against the MDC.  She said although the MDC challenge to the result in this district was "not frivolous" and she accepted evidence on abuses over food, there was no proof that the winning Zanu PF candidate or his election agents had been directly involved.

The winning candidate Didymus Mutasa who is head of Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organization is one of Mr. Mugabe's oldest and most trusted colleagues.

MDC Legal Secretary David Coltart said he was astonished that although the judgment contained proof that food was used as a political weapon, the judge had not allowed the opposition's legal challenge to the poll to prevail.

In several other ongoing cases being heard in various courts around Zimbabwe, losing opposition candidates have made similar allegations that rural people were threatened that they would starve if they voted for the MDC.