BY NORM DIXON
On February 25, the presidential candidate for Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, was formally charged with "high treason", a crime that can carry a death sentence.
Tsvangirai was allowed to leave Harare central police station after two hours of questioning. He was told that he would receive a summons "later".
Two other senior MDC leaders, general secretary Welshman Ncube and MP Renson Gasela, were also charged with treason on February 26.
The charge laid against Tsvangirai is just the latest ploy in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party's campaign to thwart a free and fair presidential poll taking place on March 9-10. Mugabe knows that the greatest threat to his continued rule is a fair election.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe hopes to repeat his "success" of the June 2000 parliamentary election. Only massive and widespread violence unleashed by ZANU-PF thugs and elements of Mugabe's security and intelligence services against MDC activists and supporters (and a generous rural gerrymander in ZANU-PF's favour) allowed the ruling party to maintain a slight majority of elected seats. More than 40 people, mostly MDC members and workers, were killed in the political violence.
The treason charges are based on the allegation, first aired on the SBS Dateline current affairs program on February 13, that Tsvangirai hired a Canada-based "political consultancy" firm, Dickens and Madson (D&M), to assassinate Mugabe.
The case against Tsvangirai rests on a secretly taped video of a Montreal meeting on December 4 attended by Tsvangirai, Ncube and Gasela. D&M's top executives, Ari Ben-Menashe and Alexandre Legault, who recorded and supplied the tape, allege that at meetings in October and November D&M was "contracted by Tsvangirai to kill Robert Mugabe".
Suspicions that D&M was involved in an elaborate "sting" operation against the opposition leader on behalf of ZANU-PF have been strengthened by Ben-Menashe's admission that he and D&M "had a relationship with Mr Mugabe that dated back quite a few years", a fact he kept from Dateline.
Legault and Ben-Menashe also have severe credibility problems. Arrest warrants have been issued in the US against Legault for defrauding 300 elderly people of their life savings, worth a total of US$13 million.
Both men are also involved in another Canadian-based corporation, the Carlington Sales Company, which last year was at the centre of a scandal in Zambia in which maize destined for hungry people was paid for but not delivered. Around US$6 million went missing. According to Canadian media reports, Carlington regularly fails to deliver commodities after receiving payment.
Ben-Menashe's and Legault's reputations have been further tarnished by a report in the February 22 Zimbabwe Independent that accuses D&M of involvement in the illegal trade in diamonds from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in league with corrupt ZANU-PF figures and Zimbabwe army officers.
According to a US diamond buyer, D&M was employed to conduct "security checks" on those seeking to purchase diamonds and to act as a "conduit" for the transfer of funds between Zimbabwe officials and diamond buyers.
Ben-Menashe is a former Israeli spy who played a role in the US Iran-contra scandal in the late 1980s. He has a reputation for duping journalists with fantastic tales of international conspiracies and "revelations" of secret intrigues by governments.
The timing of the public release of the Montreal tape, just three weeks before a presidential election at which Mugabe's 22-year rule is being seriously challenged for the first time, also has raised doubts. Ben-Menashe has stated that he gave the tape to the Zimbabwe government last October.
The charges against Tsvangirai add further uncertainty to the MDC's campaign, already severely hampered by widespread ZANU-PF militia violence. Having been formally charged, Tsvangirai can be detained again and placed on trial at any time. If convicted, Tsvangirai would be ineligible to hold the presidency.
While the MDC has been forced to defend itself in the local media against Ben-Menashe's allegations, the mass of the MDC's working-class and urban supporters are not taking the claims very seriously. It is unlikely to be a major election issue unless Tsvangirai is detained.
It is unlikely that the set-up of Tsvangirai was orchestrated primarily for local consumption. Rather, the Mugabe regime's hope is that the allegations — which have received blanket, one-sided coverage in the government-controlled press, TV and radio since February 14 — will undermine support for a Tsvangirai presidency among Western governments.
It is no accident that the spy-cam tape and D&M's allegations surfaced just weeks ahead of the March 2 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Coolum, Queensland, where the Zimbabwe political situation is to be discussed.
From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.
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