Bennett denies terrorism charges in court

Roy Bennett, treasurer-general in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was arrested in February on charges of illegal possession of arms for purposes of committing terrorism, insurgency and banditry.

Bennett’s lawyer said he viewed the case as "political persecution".

Bennett is the MDC’s nominee for the post of deputy agriculture minister but President Robert Mugabe has refused to swear him in, saying he should be acquitted first.

Asked on Monday by High Court Judge Chinembiri Bhunu how he pleaded to the charges, Bennett said: "Not guilty, my Lord."

Attorney General Johannes Tomana told the court that Bennett, together with accomplice Peter Hitschmann, were involved in an anti-government plot to destabilise the country between 2002 and May 2006.

Tomana said Bennett was the chief financier, at one time depositing $5,000 in Hitschmann’s account to purchase arms, including rifles, eight machine guns, ammunition and grenades.

"The grand plan included assassinating certain individuals in government," Tomana said. 

Beatrice Mtetwa, Bennett’s lawyer, said Bennett denied all the charges.

"The accused will contend that the state summary discloses no offence and that this is continued political persecution from his rivals who continue to stop his participation in the unity government," she said.

Judge Bhunu refused a request by defence lawyers for him to step aside from the trial. The defence says he previously made certain comments that could be prejudicial to Bennett’s case.

State prosecutors have indicated that Hitschmann — who was jailed for two years for possessing dangerous weapons but was acquitted on the more serious terrorism charge — will give evidence that will implicate Bennett.

Defence lawyers say Hitschmann’s testimony will contradict a sworn affidavit and statements he made to the High Court in 2006 and that he has also made clear that he is not prepared to be a state witness.

High Court Judge Chinembiri Bhunu thrashed attempts by Attorney General Johannes Tomana to lead evidence in MDC treasurer general Roy Bennett’s banditry trial using “hearsay” evidence sourced from Peter Michael Hitschmann, the State’s Star witness.   

This was after the State, led by Tomana, had brought its first witness, Mutare policeman Chief Superintendent Sipho James Makone to come and give evidence in Bennett’s trial.

Bennett faces charges of possessing dangerous weapons for terrorism as well as inciting acts of insurgency.

Makone on his part said he had no first hand information on Bennett’s allegations saying his evidence was based on searches he had conducted at Hitschmann’s house in 2006 and the confessions made by the firearms dealer.

But the defence led by Beatrice Mtetwa vigorously opposed the state leading evidence based on hearsay by the senior police officer.

“According to Section 253 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, no evidence which is the nature of hearsay evidence shall be admissible,” Mtetwa told the court.

Mtetwa was adamant Hitschmann must be called to testify first in the state’s line up of witnesses before those who are supposed to corroborate his evidence can be called to testify.

“He can’t submit hearsay evidence before Hitschmann comes to testify,” Mtetwa said. “Before Hitschmann has given his evidence, everything that was allegedly said or done with the witness remains  hearsay evidence. My learned friend must first establish that Hitschmann made the statement freely.”

Her interjection caused the adjournment of the trial which resumed later in the afternoon with Justice Bhunu barring Makone from submitting hearsay evidence.

Tomana was left with no choice but to force another adjournment to Tuesday morning saying the state had not anticipated the ruling by the court.

In his ruling, Justice Bhunu said the state must first establish that the accused person was properly warned and cautioned before it can attempt to use such evidence.

Hitschmann is alleged to have been Bennett’s accomplice in the purchase of dangerous weapons which the two are being charged with. Hitschmann was acquitted of possessing weapons for insurgency,banditry, sabotage or terrorism but was convicted of possessing dangerous weapons.

Then, Bennett was not immediately put to trial as he fled to South Africa where he sought asylum and only returned this February at the inception of Zimbabwe coalition government formed between President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF and the two MDC factions.

Hitschmann claims in an affidavit he was forced to implicate Bennett in the matter after undergoing severe torture by the police and state security agents.

Earlier on Justice Chinembiri Bhunu threw out last Thursday’s chamber application by Bennett, who wanted him to abandon his trial on banditry charges last Thursday citing perceived bias.

The lawyers felt the judge will not be able to apply himself impartially into the matter as he had handled a case involving Hitschmann in May 2006 during which he passed adverse comments suggesting the firearms dealer was guilty of "very serious charges" relating to state security.

In dismissing the application, Justice Bhunu said the comments applied to Hitschmann and do not necessarily apply to Bennett as well.