Zimbabwean police arrested a white lawmaker as he prepared to leave the country on Thursday, a day after Parliament recommended that he be given a one-year jail term for shoving a minister during a debate, his lawyer said.
Roy Bennett, one of three white MPs in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was arrested at Harare International airport early on Thursday, said his lawyer, Arnold Tsunga.
Bennett’s arrest followed a recommendation by Parliament on Wednesday that he be given a minimum of 12 months in prison for pushing Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa to the ground during a heated parliamentary debate in May.
A special committee of the 150-member Parliament voted in favour “of a custodial sentence of 15 months with labour, with three months suspended on condition of good behaviour”.
Police said on Thursday that Bennett has been slapped with a separate charge of attempting to thwart the course of justice.
Tsunga said: “He was going to South Africa for a meeting. He was supposed to be back at 1pm.”
Tsunga denied that the parliamentarian was trying to skip the country to avoid the recommended jail sentence.
“If he wanted to run away, he would have run away a long time ago,” Tsunga said.
Bennett is due to respond to the report in Parliament on Thursday.
Police spokesperson Wayne Bvudzijena said: “He’s going to remain in custody, but we’ll take him to Parliament later in the day. We’re preparing a criminal case against him.”
The committee described the parliamentary spat, which made international news, as “the worst attack on the dignity” of the Zimbabwean Parliament.
It rejected Bennett’s plea that he reacted to verbal abuse by Chinamasa, who had referred to Bennett’s ancestors in the former British colony as “thieves”.
Under Zimbabwean law, Parliament has the authority to sentence lawmakers to jail, although legal experts say it may infringe on the constitutional rights of Zimbabweans to receive a fair trial.
Bennett’s lawyer said one of the reasons the lawmaker was going to South Africa was to seek legal counsel on his rights in the matter.
“Parliament seems to have been given powers that violate the foundation of democracy,” Tsunga said.
The committee that recommended the jail term for Bennett comprised three ruling-party and two opposition lawmakers. It gave the MP a right to reply on Thursday, following which Parliament will debate the issue.
The house, which is dominated by President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF, will then have to vote on whether to pass the recommended sentence.
Bennett is a lawmaker for the south-eastern constituency of Chimanimani, where he also owned a coffee farm, which was occupied by ruling-party supporters who have refused to vacate despite several court orders.
He told the special parliamentary committee that he had been “subjected to persistent harassment” by the army and state agents and that the verbal abuse in Parliament was the culmination of those “trials and tribulations”.
But the head of the special committee, Paul Mangwana, said Bennett had benefited from colonialism, made no apology to the minister and showed no remorse for his actions.
He also dismissed Bennett’s argument that he had been provoked.
“The language used by Chinamasa was robust, but that is expected in parliamentary debates,” he said. “The defense of provocation was not sustainable in this case.” — Sapa-AFP