Zimbabwean security agents arrested Roy Bennett (photo), a farmer who was to become the new agriculture minister, charging him with treason as PM Morgan Tsvangirai prepared to swear in the country's new cabinet.
AFP - The swearing-in Friday of Zimbabwe's new unity government was marred by the arrest of a top aide to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai whose party said he was then charged with treason.
Roy Bennett, who returned last month from three years of self-imposed exile in South Africa -- where he had fled to escape charges of plotting to kill President Robert Mugabe -- was arrested at a Harare airport, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change said.
Bennett was later taken to the eastern city of Mutare where, according to the MDC, he was charged with treason.
"Police have again changed charges on Roy Bennett. They have now charged him with treason," the MDC statement said.
"These charges are scandalous, vexatious and without bases in law, but are simply politically motivated, simply intended to justify the continued incarceration of Roy Bennett," it added.
Bennett's lawyer, Trust Maanda, said the "police have orally told him of his treason charges.
"He was told of the treason charges but the police will formalise the charge documents tomorrow. His case is likely to come up in court either Monday or Tuesday," he told AFP from the Mutare police station where he said the politician would spend the weekend.
"The police fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd of MDC supporters asking for Bennett's release," he added confirming an earlier statement by the MDC.
Despite the arrest of Bennett, a white farmer who became treasurer of the MDC and was designated to become deputy agriculture minister, Mugabe said he was committed to the new government.
"When I say, I am committed I mean it. When I say I want to work with you sincerely and honestly, I mean it," he declared in a speech after presiding over the swearing-in ceremony.
"The people will expect a lot from us. Let's never let them down. It should never be forgotten that the suffering of our people is our suffering. Our failure hurts them and our success yields benefits to them."
The MDC's chief whip in parliament Innocent Gonese described Bennett's arrest as "very disturbing.
"I don't understand the rationale. It undermines confidence in the all-inclusive government."
The swearing-in had already been held up by more than two hours as the MDC accused Mugabe of trying to bring 22 ministers into cabinet, although their agreement allowed his ZANU-PF party only 15 seats.
In the end, Mugabe swore in two extra ministers while the MDC took one more seat than expected.
Tsvangirai's party in a statement blamed the development on "backstage chaos and confusion" within ZANU-PF.
Mugabe gave some of his party's staunchest hardliners the key posts of defence, home affairs and national security.
The defence portfolio went to Emmerson Mnangagwa, seen as the president's right-hand man, who earned notoriety as the head of state security in the 1980s, when a North Korean-trained army brigade allegedly massacred up to 20,000 suspected dissidents from the minority Ndebele people.
Sydney Sekeramayi, who was defence minister in the last cabinet, took up the state security post.
Kembo Mohadi retained his position at home affairs, a portfolio he will share with a co-minister from Tsvangirai's party.
At home affairs, Mohadi has presided over the police during a period that saw widespread accusations against the force of rights abuses and intimidation of the MDC.
Foremost among those are allegations that security forces have detained and tortured MDC supporters and other activists at secret camps.
About 30 activists remain in custody, and Bennett's arrest raised new doubts about their fate.
Bennett was among the most striking names on Tsvangirai's cabinet list, which made for an unlikely partnership with some of Mugabe's oldest and toughest allies.
Bennett's Charleswood farm was expropriated under Mugabe's land reforms in 2003, and the following year he was jailed for eight months for assault after he punched the justice minister during a heated debate in parliament on the land programme.
In 2006, he fled to neighbouring South Africa to escape arrest after being implicated in an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe. Such allegations have been levied but never substantiated against much of the MDC leadership.
Under the unity pact, Tsvangirai's aides are paired with people they have long accused of masterminding political attacks against themselves and their supporters.
Analysts have questioned how such bitter adversaries would be able to work together to curb a humanitarian crisis.
Nearly seven million people need food aid. Up to three million have fled the country. Unemployment is at 94 percent and only 20 percent of children are going to school.
Public hospitals are closed, even though 1.3 million people have HIV. A cholera epidemic is also ravaging the country, hitting about 70,000 people and killing 3,400 since August.
Date created : 2009-02-13