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Terrorism trial rocks Zimbabwe unity government

A top aide to Zimbabwe's prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai began his terrorism trial in a case that has rocked Harare's fragile unity government.

Roy Bennett, a top aide to Zimbabwe's prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, began his terrorism trial today before a packed courtroom in a case that has rocked Harare's fragile unity government. Mr Bennett, a former white farmer who is the treasurer of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is accused of scheming to topple veteran president Robert Mugabe three years ago. Similar charges against other MDC officials have already been thrown out of court, and Mr Bennett's latest arrest last month prompted Mr Tsvangirai to stage a three-week boycott of the unity government, underscoring tensions in the power-sharing arrangement.

"This is a very serious matter which must be accorded the amount of seriousness it demands, particularly in the environment the country is in," said attorney general Johannes Tomana who is leading the prosecution. One of Mr Bennett's lawyers, Beatrice Mtetwa said that she was concerned by some of the testimony, saying one key state witness had testified differently from "what is already contained in his witness account".

Wearing a blue suit, sky blue shirt and a matching blue tie Mr Bennett was accompanied his wife in court. He is currently out on bail and faces a possible death sentence if convicted. Mr Bennett was first arrested in February on his return from South Africa to take up the post of deputy agriculture minister in the unity government. Instead of being sworn in with other cabinet members, he was accused of possessing arms for the purposes of banditry, terrorism and sabotage.

He was released in early March, but detained again in mid-October, prompting Mr Tsvangirai's decision to boycott the power-sharing government with Mr Mugabe's camp, which he accused of being "dishonest and unreliable". Mr Tsvangirai only ended the boycott after an emergency regional summit on Thursday set a new 30-day deadline for the rivals to sort out their differences - including a dispute over the naming of Tomana, who the MDC says is targeting its members.

Mr Tsvangirai and his long-time rival agreed to the unity government nearly a year after disputed polls, which saw Mr Mugabe handed the presidency in a one-man runoff, plunged the country into deeper economic and political crisis. The pact helped arrest Zimbabwe's economic free-fall and created an opening to repair its international ties amid Western calls for greater signs of reform from Mugabe, the country's ruler since 1980.

Mr Bennett's case has become a symbol of the challenges facing Zimbabwe's government. His other co-accused, including the new co-minister for home affairs Giles Mutsekwa, were cleared by the courts which discredited the alleged plot. Mr Bennett, who speaks fluent Shona, saw his farm in eastern Zimbabwe seized in 2003 under Mugabe's controversial land reforms which targeted white-owned farms for resettlement by black farmers.

The following year he was jailed for eight months for assault after he punched Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa in parliament during a heated debate on the land reforms. * AFP