A judge ended the treason trial of a top opposition leader on Friday, an indication that Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party wants a proposed coalition government to work.
Magistrate Olivia Mariga said prosecutors appeared unprepared to proceed against Tendai Biti. She also ruled that Biti had been improperly arrested.
Ending the Biti case removes a major irritant between his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Zanu-PF. The opposition had accused Zanu-PF of engineering the charges against Biti, who is expected to enter the coalition government.
The two parties are now pledged to work together to try to end Zimbabwe’s growing humanitarian and economic crises, though their union is likely to be rocky after years of deadly rivalry.
Biti said after Friday’s ruling he was ”happy to know that I’ve been set free” and was preparing to enter government.
He added: ”We are going to finish this job that we started of removing the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe.”
Biti, a sharp-tongued lawyer and the MDC’s secretary-general, had been arrested at the airport after flying back to Zimbabwe from South Africa on June 12. His whereabouts were unknown for two weeks, until he was brought to court and charged with treason, which carries the death penalty.
The charges were based on a document purporting to lay out opposition plans for a coup. The document had been widely dismissed as fraudulent, and the MDC insisted its strategy was peaceful.
Zimbabwe’s Parliament on Thursday passed a constitutional amendment opening the way for the unity government by creating the post of prime minister — planned to be held by MDC chief Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, would remain president.
Biti went to Parliament from a hearing in his trial to second the motion introducing the amendment.
The unity Cabinet is to be sworn in next week. While it is not certain Biti will take a Cabinet post, there has been speculation he will be appointed to the Police Ministry which, under a complicated arrangement mediated by regional leaders, is to alternate every few months between an MDC and a Zanu-PF politician.
The coalition’s agenda includes preparing for new elections.
Mugabe is accused of engineering Zimbabwe’s economic crisis through mismanagement and corruption, then ignoring his people’s desire for change as expressed at the ballot box.
Tsvangirai won the most votes in a March presidential election, then dropped out of a runoff against Mugabe because of attacks on opposition supporters.
Tsvangirai’s party also won control of Parliament in March, Zanu-PF’s first defeat since independence.
Tsvangirai, a former trade union activist, formed the MDC in 1999. He led it in parliamentary elections in 2000 and 2005 and won 42% of votes in the 2002 presidential elections. All three polls were marred by allegations of rigging through violence, intimidation and voting irregularities.
Tsvangirai has survived at least three assassination attempts. He was imprisoned for six weeks in 1989 on allegations of spying for South Africa.
In 2003, after an 18-month trial, Tsvangirai was acquitted of treason in a case stemming from an alleged a plot to assassinate Mugabe.
In March 2007, police beat and tortured Tsvangirai during and after his arrest for attending an opposition meeting the government had banned.
Cholera toll rises to 3 371
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s cholera outbreak has now killed 3 371 people and infected 67 945 since it began in August, data from the World Health Organisation showed on Friday.
A previous toll from earlier this week showed about 65 739 people had been infected and 3 323 among them had died.
The United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office, which released the figures compiled with Zimbabwe’s Health Ministry and dated February 5, reiterated that the outbreak was ”still not under control”.
The WHO has estimated that about half of Zimbabwe’s 12-million inhabitants are potentially at risk from cholera because of poor living conditions.
A senior WHO specialist last Friday called for drastic action to tackle the outbreak, after the number of cases soared past the agency’s ”worst-case” threshold of 60 000. — Sapa-AFP