ZIMBABWE POLITICS
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi  /  AP
Opposition party supporters hold a poster calling for the release of Roy Bennet, a prominent political leader facing a battery of charges.
updated 2/17/2009 9:39:41 AM ET 2009-02-17T14:39:41

Police announced terrorism- and weapons-related charges Tuesday against a prominent official in the party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has called the case an attempt to derail Zimbabwe's unity government.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change said Roy Bennett, Tsvangirai's designated deputy agriculture minister, was taken to court for the first time since his arrest. Police told a magistrate he was accused of attempting to commit terrorism; banditry and sabotage; conspiring to acquire arms to disrupt essential services; illegal possession of fire arms and weapons; and attempting to leave the country illegally, the party said.

Tsvangirai has described Bennett's Friday arrest as an attempt by hard-liners in President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF to derail the coalition government, whose 32-member Cabinet met for the first time Tuesday in a government boardroom in downtown Harare.

The MDC called for the release of Bennett and several political and human rights activists detained even as the coalition agreement was being finalized.

"These charges are scandalous and politically motivated," the party said.

Strained relations
The downtown meeting, which broke with the tradition of holding regular Cabinet meetings at Mugabe's State House , was "very cordial," but no substantive issues were discussed, Tsvangirai spokesman James Maridadi said.

Maridadi said a multiparty committee formed to ensure the coalition worked smoothly was expected to report to Tsvangirai Wednesday on the arrests of Bennett and the activists, which have strained relations among the coalition partners.

Tsvangirai met afterward with Mugabe separately to raise concerns about the "credibility of the government" and the need for freedom of expression, Maridadi said. Tsvangirai then met with foreign ministry officials, Maridadi said.

Amnesty International cited Bennett's arrest in calling for the African Union and the United Nations to send human rights investigators to Zimbabwe.

"A number of events that have taken place since the swearing-in of a new government in Zimbabwe suggest that there is a force within the Zimbabwean security forces that continues ordering violations of human rights as a method of dealing with people they do not like," Simeon Mawanza, the global human rights watchdog's Zimbabwe expert, said.

Economic meltdown
Zimbabwe's power-sharing deal — created to end a year of political deadlock — aims to have rival politicians work together to address Zimbabwe's chronic economic meltdown. It keeps Mugabe as president after three decades in power, but many of his top aides have lost Cabinet posts.

Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate and faces acute food and gasoline shortages. The hunger crisis has left up to 7 million people, more than half the population, dependent on foreign handouts and a cholera epidemic blamed on collapsed water, sanitation and health services has killed more than 3,600 people since August.

The international medical aid agency Medecins San Frontieres, at a briefing in neighboring Johannesburg, said the cholera epidemic was just the most visible evidence of the collapse of Zimbabwe's health system. It called on both international donors and the Zimbabwean government to do more, saying other epidemic disease outbreaks were possible.

The next epidemic, MSF said, could be malaria, because Zimbabwe has been unable to afford preventive measures such as distributing insecticide-treated nets and the peak season for the disease is imminent. People in a country where one in five adults carries the virus that causes AIDS aren't getting medication. Pregnant women aren't getting prenatal treatment and are having their children at home.

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