HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s ally Roy Bennett goes on trial accused of terrorism on Monday in a case that has stoked tensions in the unity government of Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF.
Bennett was arrested in February and charged with illegally possessing arms to commit acts of terrorism, banditry and insurgency, charges that carry a possible death penalty.
Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says the case is politically motivated and the party briefly boycotted the unity government after Bennett, a white former coffee farmer, was detained in prison following his indictment for trial.
Bennett, the MDC treasurer, has denied the charges and the MDC says the case was designed to stop him from taking office as deputy agriculture minister.
“I still maintain my innocence,” Bennett told Reuters.
The MDC says Mugabe is frustrating efforts to swear in Bennett, along with other senior MDC officials, as required by a political agreement signed last year between the bitter rival parties.
Mugabe says he does not oppose Bennett becoming a minister but that he should be acquitted by the courts first.
A senior Tsvangirai aide said Mugabe had previously told the former opposition leader that Bennett’s nomination was “provocative,” especially after an often violent land seizure drive that saw white commercial farmers, including Bennett, losing their land.
Tsvangirai said on Sunday his party would stay in the government and challenge ZANU-PF to implement the power-sharing deal.
In 2004 Bennett was sentenced 12 months in jail after he was convicted of assaulting a ZANU-PF minister during a parliamentary debate.
Bennett, a one-time policeman under Ian’s Smith’s white-ruled Rhodesia, returned to Zimbabwe in early 2009, shortly before his arrest, after spending two years in exile in South Africa.
Editing by Matthew Jones