Special courts set up to confirm candidates in Zimbabwe's March general election met for six hours Friday, but excluded one of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change's, MDC, most popular candidates.

A nomination court in eastern Zimbabwe refused an application by opposition legislator Roy Bennett to run as a candidate in the general election.

Mr. Bennett, a former commercial farmer, has been repeatedly detained, beaten and tortured since he was elected in 2000 and all his possessions, including his home, have been confiscated.

Two of his workers were killed and many more injured during sustained attacks. Mr. Bennett was finally forced to leave his farm in eastern Zimbabwe last year.

During a heated debate on land in parliament last May, Mr. Bennett lunged at justice minister Patrick Chinamasa. A committee dominated by Zanu-PF legislators sentenced him to a year in prison for bringing parliament into disrepute.

Mr. Bennett is serving his sentence in a rural prison in northern Zimbabwe.

Election officials asserted Friday that Mr. Bennett is a criminal and therefore not eligible to be a candidate in the general election.

MDC legal spokesman David Coltart said Mr. Bennett's exclusion was illegal. He said under elections laws, passed in December, there is supposed to be an election court available to immediately resolve any electoral disputes.

He said no one knew whether an electoral court had been established.

There were no independent observers at the nomination courts in Marondera, 60 kilometers southeast of Harare on Friday. 

Most ruling Zanu-PF heavyweights, including several cabinet ministers, had submitted their applications to run for election 24 hours earlier and were not in court Friday.

There is confusion in Zimbabwe's election machinery as a new authority to run the polls, the Zimbabwe Election Commission, was established in December.

President Robert Mugabe said the Commission, which is supposed to be independent of the government, was established so that Zimbabwe's elections comply with electoral principles he agreed to at a regional summit last August.

At the nomination court in Marondera, candidates? nominations were not handled by the new Commission, but were processed by another electoral authority, which has been running Zimbabwe's elections for the last 25 years.

It is not yet known whether any other candidates for either the MDC and or Zanu-PF were excluded from running for election.