Mugabe’s first public comments about Roy Bennett’s case show the gulf between his ZANU-PF party and the Movement for Democratic Change, longtime opponents now trying to work together to rescue Zimbabwe from economic collapse.
"The issue of Roy Bennett is making headlines worldwide. I wonder why?" Mugabe said Thursday. "This is a court case. Let the courts decide for themselves."
Bennett’s Movement for Democratic Change, the former opposition party, says the lawmaker’s arrest a week ago is part of a plot by ZANU-PF hard-liners to wreck Zimbabwe’s unity government. A judge on Wednesday ordered Bennett held for at least two more weeks pending trial on terrorism and weapons charges linked to long-discredited accusations that his party had plotted Mugabe’s overthrow.
While Mugabe refuses, at least in public, to acknowledge the seriousness of the case, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has raised it with him in private.
Tsvangirai, speaking at the party’s 10th anniversary celebration Wednesday night, said the Bennett case was a priority.
"Roy Bennett is still locked up with other political prisoners arrested in the name of the MDC," Tsvangirai said. "We are working hard to resolve that issue and we hope they will be released."
The detention of Bennett and other opposition figures and human rights advocates raises the pressure on Tsvangirai to convince supporters that joining a government with Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party was not a mistake.
Regional African leaders pushed through the coalition government compromise after months of stalemate following Zimbabwe’s elections in March. Tsvangirai won the most votes in that balloting but pulled out of a June runoff against Mugabe because of state-sponsored violence against opposition supporters. Mugabe claimed victory in a runoff widely denounced as a sham.
Mugabe on Thursday called the unity government a "temporary measure" to stabilize the country so that new elections can be held.
"We hope that elections will be accepted internationally," Mugabe said after a ceremony where deputy ministers were sworn in.
Tsvangirai addressed reporters only briefly after the ceremony, saying he hoped "issues of governance" would be resolved quickly.
Tsvangirai had nominated Bennett to be deputy agriculture minister. The other deputies and junior ministers were sworn in Thursday, among them five ZANU-PF politicians Mugabe had at the last minute proposed join the Cabinet. Mugabe said Thursday the extra five would serve as advisers to the president and the prime minister.
The main Cabinet consists of 32 ministers sworn in last week — Mugabe has 15 ministers, one of whom shares control of the police ministry with one of Tsvangirai’s ministers; Tsvangirai has 14 and Arthur Mutambara, leader of a MDC breakaway faction, has three.
This Cabinet of rivals must find a way to cope with runaway inflation, a hunger crisis that has left up to 7 million people dependent on foreign food handouts and a cholera epidemic blamed on collapsed water, sanitation and health services that has killed more than 3,600 people since August.
The MDC party blames the country’s economic collapse on mismanagement and corruption by Mugabe’s party.