Zimbabwe’s new unity government began the task of rebuilding the shattered country on Monday but its first day was marred by confusion over terrorism charges laid against a would-be minister.
Prosecutors in Roy Bennett’s case failed to show up at the court in the eastern town of Mutare for a scheduled hearing, said his lawyer Trust Maanda.
“His case will come up tomorrow [(Tuesday) in court. The prosecutors failed to show up today,” Maanda said.
“The police said they have obtained a warrant to extend his detention without trial,” he added. Bennett turned 52 on Monday.
His party, the Movement for Democratric Change (MDC) said in a statement after the postponement that the police given assurances that Bennett would not be moved from the Mutare police station where he is being held.
Police had also said Bennett could appear in court on Tuesday or on Wednesday morning,” said the MDC statement.
About 100 MDC supporters waited outside the court demanding Bennett’s release, some carrying placards which read “Bennett is our hero,” and “Free Roy Bennett now.”
Bennett was arrested on Friday, shortly before his MDC colleagues were sworn in to serve in the new Cabinet. He himself had been due to take up the post of deputy agriculture minister.
The incident has provoked fresh tension between the MDC and President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.
MDC secretary general and newly appointed finance minister Tendai Biti hinted that the party would take unspecified “action” if Bennett was not released on Tuesday.
“The prime minister [Morgan Tsvangirai] is in touch with Mugabe. We hope that the situation will be resolved today,” Biti told South African radio on Monday.
“It is a very, very unsavoury situation,” she added. I hope he will be out by tomorrow [Tuesday].”
But the new Information and Communication Technology Minister Nelson Chamisa said that the new ministers had got down to work.
“Basically, what we are doing is terrain-reading to understand the gaps and challenges and try to locate areas that need urgent attention in our various ministries,” he said.
Bennett was among the most high-profile names on Tsvangirai’s Cabinet list.
A white farmer from the lush Chimanimani region near the border with Mozambique, Bennett’s farm was expropriated under Mugabe’s land reforms in 2003.
In 2004, he received an eight-month jail sentence for assault after he punched the justice minister during a heated debate in Parliament on the land programme.
He only returned to Zimbabwe last month after three years of self-imposed exile in South Africa, where he had fled to escape charges of having plotted to kill Mugabe.
Police on Sunday dropped treason charges against Bennett, accusing him instead of attempt to commit terrorism, banditry and sabotage.
Friday’s swearing-in ceremony joined the rival political parties in an uneasy coalition.
The bitter enemies are now tasked with pulling Zimbabwe out of a deep crisis marked by hunger, the world’s highest inflation rate and a cholera epidemic which has claimed more than 3 500 lives since August.
Regional leaders pressured Mugabe and Tsvangirai to agree to share power in September after disputed elections last March.
The elections gave the MDC a majority in parliament. Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential vote but pulled out of the run-off against Mugabe, citing violence against his supporters. – AFP