Mugabe Rival Acquitted of Treason

Morgan Tsvangirai (center) leaves the high court in Harare after being acquitted on treason charges on October 15, 2004. (Photo: -/AFP-Getty Images)

The October 15, 2004 acquittal of opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, does not in a single judgment restore Zimbabwe's eroded rule of law and democracy despite the government's political grandstanding about the ruling.

Zimbabwe's high court acquitted the president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) after the state failed to prove its case against him. A former trade union leader, Mr. Tsvangirai faced a death sentence if convicted of high treason. The charges arose from a grainy video in which notorious ex-Israeli spy and Canadian political consultant, Ari Ben Menashe, linked Tsvangirai to a blotched assassination attempt on President Robert Mugabe in the run up to the 2002 presidential election. Tsvangirai and two of his co-accused — Welshman Ncube and Renson Gasela, who were acquitted earlier — pleaded not guilty.

The judgment is seen by many as a smoke screen for the beleaguered ruling Zanu PF party, which is torn by infighting as the battle to find Mugabe's successor intensifies. The judgment has become a rallying point to convince the world that there is justice in Zimbabwe, even for traitors. The pro-government press, as reflected in its litany on the independence of the country's emasculated judiciary, has gone to town in its reporting on Tsvangirai's escape from the hangman's noose.

"MDC's four year old onslaught on Zimbabwe has hinged on the now tired and discredited allegation that there was no rule of law, there was no democracy, no human rights and no judiciary independence in the country," screamed the pro-government, Sunday News (October 17, 2004). "How can there be no human rights if star sellout Tsvangirai has the right to freedom even when it looked justified - at least in the public eye - to convict him? October 15 2004 is 'Black Day' for MDC and its masters because it has disarmed them of their weapons of mass deception."

The same government mouth piece continued: "Who is going to listen to the rubbish by MDC, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush that there is no rule of law in Zimbabwe when their star hit man owes his life to the rule of law of Zimbabwe?" The trial is a litmus test for the political and legal process in Zimbabwe given the horde of laws passed to curb the fundamental rights of self expression and association.

Analysts are wary of the vindication of the country's judiciary independence by the government owned media. The judiciary, whose independence was never in doubt, has been in the government's line of fire. Professional judges have been hounded off the benches. Those who remain have had little choice in handing down judgments not in favor of the government in most cases. Nor does the acquittal of Tsvangirai mean that the Zanu PF and the MDC have kissed and made up. Many people still believe there is a catch to the judgment. The ruling is the beginning and not the end of political prosecution for those who cross the Zanu PF.

Tsvangirai has jumped but one hurdle to political freedom in the rundown to the March 2005 parliamentary elections. He still faces another treason trial on charges of inciting supporters to remove Mugabe from the state house by violent means. Fearful of a bloody 2005 election, the MDC has said it will boycott the poll unless the government changes the electoral laws to meet Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) electoral guidelines.

While praising the outcome of the trial, the pro-opposition Standard (October 17, 2004) said the worse was not over: "The battle is not over yet. Zimbabweans are in for a long haul. It is important to emphasize the point that democracy is always and everywhere a job in progress. It goes back and forth."

The government has not yet exhausted its bag of tricks nor is it finished with the MDC. But, that Tsvangirai's acquittal is evidence of justice, as claimed by the pro-government, Bulawayo-based Chronicle, is as remote from reality as Zanu PF accepting the presence of the MDC.

"That [Tsvangirai's acquittal] is what the rule of law is all about," commented the Chronicle (October 16, 2004). "We believe several myths about the country's justice system were buried yesterday by the demonstration by the judiciary that it relied on evidence presented in court to come up with a verdict.... It would help us all if Tsvangirai would use his newly cherished freedom to campaign for the lifting of sanctions against Zimbabwe."

Even Tsvangirai, whose legal team was led by renowned South African advocate, Gorge Bizos, is not celebrating yet.

"We cannot celebrate because the political situation will not improve because of this ruling," the MDC leader told a press conference shortly after the judgment. "We cannot use this case as the basis that there is now rule of law in Zimbabwe. The real issues still beckon and the political situation needs to be changed through stopping violence and repression."

Not withstanding the obvious political complexity of Tsvangirai's case, the centrist weekly, Sunday Mirror (October 17, 2004) echoed the sentiments of pro-government newspapers about the rule of law in Zimbabwe: "Whether his acquittal on the high treason charges is viewed in the positive or the negative is neither here nor there. What is important is that how the case was handled symbolized that there is the rule of law in Zimbabwe. Everyone including the international community, was following developments in the case and certainly will admit that the case was handled in a proper manner — procedurally and lawfully."

The Sunday Mail, another government owned weekly, was upbeat about the judgment but with some reservations: "The truth is that the judiciary in Zimbabwe is competent and free enough to pronounce itself on any case. We congratulate Justice Garwe for his verdict. But when the dust has settled and the emotions have died down there will be many legal minds that will want to challenge him on how he arrived at his conclusion. We pray and hope his judgment will survive legal scrutiny and criticism.

"Now that he has been acquitted we hope Mr. Tsvangirai will be bold enough to lead the MDC into the forthcoming general election, which we believe is the best way of delivering a people's verdict."

The political playing field is far from level. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa asserts that Zimbabwe will stick to the SADC electoral guidelines for the 2005 polls, but the government's carte blanche arrest, detention and persecution of MDC leaders and supporters, and civil activists indicates that Zimbabwe agrees to the guidelines in principle only.

One requirement of the SADC guidelines is that all political parties contesting elections be given access to the public media. Chinamasa has made it clear that the public media it controls will not be used to spread hate and propaganda — the very purpose the government is using it for. The opposition must repent and change its so-called hate speech or kiss the public media good bye.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe's liberation hero-turned dictator, does not brook opposition or the divergence of views, as the plethora of laws that curtail freedoms attest — laws rubber stamped by the Zanu PF parliamentary majority. The minister of information has recently introduced an amendment to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act that will make it lawful for the government to arrest any journalist not registered with the Media and Information Commission for up to two years. Also, Journalists accredited with one organization will not be allowed to freelance for another organization. So much for the proclaimed rule of law and democracy in Zimbabwe.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Julius Dawu.