Minister prepares for next round in conspiracy saga

Roy Bennett insists that his trial will not deter him from fighting for justice in Zimbabwe

Barefoot at his front door, wearing faded shorts and a T-shirt, Roy Bennett looks tired. As well he might. Next week, instead of kicking off the new year discharging a brief as deputy agriculture minister in Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government, Bennett will be back in Harare’s high court, enduring a further instalment of a trial in which he faces life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the president, Robert Mugabe.

Under the draconian Public Order and Security Act, the former commercial farmer is accused of buying £3,000 worth of arms in 2006 to carry out acts of insurgency, sabotage, banditry or terrorism. The prosecution claims to have email evidence, along with a confession from Mike Hitschmann, a gun dealer and alleged conspirator, that Bennett bought the weapons to be used as part of an anti-government plot. "It’s complete nonsense," he told the Observer at his home in the capital where he is currently on bail. "I had seen Mike Hitschmann at political rallies, but I never bought a single gun from him.

"The court experience is a total nightmare. Sitting in that court every day, listening to people lying, is like one of those dreams where someone is trying to murder you but you can’t defend yourself because your gun won’t work." Amid no-shows by witnesses and chaos in the paperwork, no one knows when the trial will end.

Bennett, who is also treasurer-general of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, was arrested in February, on the day he was due to be sworn in to the "inclusive" government that the MDC had finally agreed to join following disputed elections. He is the tenth person to face treason charges since Mugabe came to power in 1980. But the fact that he is white, his political track record and the timing have given this trial a special significance.

Last month, at the Zanu-PF party congress in Harare, Mugabe took his latest swipe at the "settler’s son" who is held up by the veteran president as evidence that the MDC is a white-led – or British – conspiracy to dispossess all black Zimbabweans. "Open your eyes," said Mugabe. "This is your country and not for whites. Not the Bennetts. They are settlers. Even if they were born here they are offspring of settlers."

Lawyers say the country’s legal system – flawed as it is – should clear Bennett. Dubious witnesses, cobbled-together exhibits and the mysterious disappearance of evidence have marred the prosecution’s case. But if he is found guilty, the MDC could find itself at a dangerous crossroads. The secretive nature of the current round of talks between Morgan Tsvangirai, the prime minister, and the 85-year-old Mugabe has led to a growing restiveness among MDC supporters. A touchy-feely joint press conference just before Christmas left Zimbabweans feeling Tsvangirai was in danger of giving too much ground to his old foe. Diplomats are worried, too. "We are getting very few clear signals from the talks, and we are worried that some MDC ministers are being co-opted by Zanu-PF," said a European ambassador.

It is in that political context that Bennett’s trial gives an insight into the workings of power in Zimbabwe. "The outcome of the trial is on the table of the political talks. Mugabe is dangling the danger of Bennett’s conviction in front of the MDC as a threat. Mugabe has calculated that, if Bennett goes to jail, Tsvangirai will be considerably weakened in people’s eyes," said John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe.

The grandson of an Ulsterman who arrived in the 1880s to work as an assayer in the mines, Bennett was a policeman before going to agriculture college in 1978. "I served five years as a regular in the British South Africa Police," he said. "The liberation war was on. I attended many murders. The so-called liberation fighters would go into communal areas and kill black government employees. That was their way of forcing people to support them. Seeing the repression, and how the people were getting a hammering from both sides, gave me a strong affinity with them."

Bennett, who currently lives in Harare with his half-Scots wife Heather, 47, built up his booming 300-hectare fair-trade coffee farm at Chimanimani in the east of the country from scratch. Before May 2000, when it was invaded under Mugabe’s ruinous land resettlement campaign, the farm was a hub of empowerment, known throughout the area. Bennett, a fluent speaker of the local language, Shona, had ploughed a share of his profits into building bridges, roads, schools and clinics for the community.

So popular was Bennett that when Mugabe’s "war veterans" occupied his farm his employees and local people resisted. Later they sent a witch-doctor to protect the farmhouse and curse the invaders. The farm, he says, is now derelict; he has fought successive court battles but has not been able to return, even for a visit, since 2004. He has now started a panel-beating business in Harare.

Bennett describes himself as a "native through generations of history that was no choice of my own, in the same way as most black Zimbabweans have roots throughout the region". His brand of politics is based on parleys under trees: "I did not want to go into politics. But before the 2000 elections the people came and asked me to get involved. I turned to Zanu-PF, but they would not have me as a candidate. One day the elders and I travelled up to Harare to see what Morgan Tsvangirai had to say for himself. We decided on the MDC. "

In 2000 he became one of four whites to win parliamentary seats for the MDC. His Manicaland constituency – a former heartland of the war against white rule – had been staunchly Zanu-PF for 20 years. For the seat to have gone to a white farmer was an insult to Mugabe. He quickly became a priority target for the ruling party. In 2004 the justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, announced in parliament that Bennett’s Charleswood estate was to be resettled. Bennett marched across the floor and wrestled Chinamasa to the ground. He also took a swing at the anti-corruption minister before being ejected and jailed for 15 months.

The treason trial is based mainly on a controversial "confession" from Hitschmann, 49. Until 2006, when he was arrested, the former volunteer police officer held a formidable armoury on behalf of farmers who had fled the land invasions. He has been subpoenaed as a prosecution witness in Bennett’s trial, despite emerging only in July 2009 from two years in jail after being convicted of illegal possession of firearms. The confession that incriminates Bennett was ruled invalid in Hitschmann’s own trial because it was obtained under torture.

Hitschmann told the Observer he will reveal the full extent of his mistreatment when he appears in court this month. "The confession naming Bennett is one of five they made me write after I was handcuffed, leg-ironed, beaten over the head and told that my wife and son were in custody. They kicked me in the genitals and burnt my buttocks with cigarettes, and then I was made to write five different confessions.

"One covered a plan I was supposed to have hatched to derail Mugabe’s motorcade. The second was the alleged MDC plot involving Bennett. A third had me destabilising the country on the orders of two provincial Zanu-PF officials, and a fourth involved me in economic sabotage of Zanu-PF assets on the orders of a party official. The fifth said [defence minister] Emmerson Mnangagwa and ‘unnamed’ generals had involved me in a plot to organise resistance to unseat Mugabe.”

As he prepares to face the prosecutors again, Bennett admits he is exhausted. He terribly regrets having "ruined" his family’s life. "It has been awful for them. My son Charles, who is 24, had his room raided by strangers when he was 10 and he has not had a permanent home since then. They want to break you, and they get close. But I am not a politician. I cannot be corrupted or intimidated.

"I got into this to help people who now have hung their hats on the fact that I am committed to represent them honestly and fairly. If it was not for those people, I would have walked away from this thing long ago.”

Roy Bennett – Born 1957

1973-1978 After leaving school at 16, serves in the British South Africa Police.

1980 Begins work as a farmer. Later buys Charleswood estate.

May 2000 Charleswood is occupied for the first time; 800 cattle are taken.

24-25 June 2000 Wins seat for MDC by 11,410 votes against 8,072.

2006 Mike Hitschmann is arrested. Bennett asks for asylum in South Africa.

2007 Hitschmann is jailed for two years.

February 2009 After receiving assurances of his safety, Bennett returns. Morgan Tsvangirai gives him job of deputy agriculture minister. But Bennett arrested on arrival at airport.

October 2009 Tsvangirai boycotts power-sharing government for a month in protest at charges against Bennett. Bennett released on bail.

November 2009 Bennett’s trial begins. It is due to resume on 12 January.Guardian.co.uk