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Riot in Zimbabwe over arrest of new deputy-minister Roy Bennett

By Adriana Stuijt     Feb 14, 2009 in Politics
The arrest on Friday of Zimbabwe's new deputy-agriculture Minister, the white farmer Roy Bennett, has caused widespread anger in the town of Mutare, where he is denied food by the police, said Mutare mayor Brian James. A crowd outside demands his release.
Bennett, is an English-speaking farmer who joined Zimbabwe's new premier, Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), years ago and has campaigned for him very actively for years. Bennett was arrested by Mugabe's North Korean-trained security agents just as the new cabinet was preparing to take office, the premier's chief secretary Ian Makone confirmed.
Bennett was trying to flee
Bennett was trying to escape from Zimbabwe shortly before the swearing-in ceremony was to start, after he had been warned that he was going to be arrested. The newly-sworn in premier, Morgan Tsvangirai, who had also heard persistent rumours to this effect, warned his friend to go back to South Africa, so Bennett had rented a private plane to do so - and the plane was already on the runway, when its pilot was ordered by radio to return to the terminal.
Afrikaans journalists from the newspaper Beeld were told by a member of the commercial agricultural union, who was seeing Bennett off, that he witnessed it, describing it as a 'kidnapping by guys in civilian clothes'.
"Bennett's light plane was on the runway, idling, just ready to take off, when we saw these guys in civilian clothes, which we recognised as specific members of the security police, drag him out of the plane and kidnap him.'
The farmer followed Bennett's kidnappers for about two hours - but lost them near the infamous Chikurubi prison. Tshvangirai's spokesman has meanwhile managed to trace Bennett to the Ma'rondera police station - where Mugabe's party cadres are running a torture camp nearby. see
Reports from Movement for Democratic Change party headquarters also confirmed that Bennett is now being denied food in the Ma'rondera police station cells and that police fired shots to try and disperse the angry crowd which gathered out the police station when the news got out. They demand Bennett's immediate release. James said he has been negotiating with the police to give at least give the elderly white man some food, but the police have repeatedly refused to do so. The mood outside is growing ugly, he said.
Zimbabwe has been plunged into widespread famine, with more than three-quarters of its population receiving food-aid from the UN aid agencies. Church leaders say that the country has been plunged into a 'slow genocide' by dictator Robert Mugabe, who refused to relinquish his office even after the MDC had won the last election. After nearly a year of negotiations, an agreement was reached for a new 'unity' cabinet which was sworn in on Friday. Bennett's shock arrest by Mugabe's storm-troopers now has now thrown a dark shadow over the viability of this latest so-called 'government'. see
James said they had brought food to the police station for Bennett, but the police adamantly refuse to give it to him.
Zimbabwe also is in the middle of a widening cholera epidemic, which has already killed more than 1,000 people, and the crowd of supporters outside fear that he may be tortured there. They fear for his health and his security, demanding his immediate release. see
Three years of self-imposed exile
Tsvangirai had named Bennett to become the deputy minister of agriculture in the new coalition Cabinet. Bennett's arrest delayed the swearing-in ceremony when he failed to turn up. Two hours after the set date, government officials were still waiting at the presidential mansion with no indication of whether the ceremony would proceed. Eventually, when word of Bennett's shock arrest reached the group of officials, the swearing-in ceremony proceeded.
It was conducted in a very grim atmosphere. Bennet had returned just last month from three years of self-imposed exile in South Africa, where he had fled to escape charges of plotting to kill Mugabe. Friday he was taken into police custody and charged with attempting to leave the country illegally, but the charge was later changed to treason, according to his party.
Bennett has been in a Zimbabwe prison before: where he was also tortured during his incarceration by Mugabe's North-Korean-trained secret police.
His Charleswood farm was expropriated by Mugabe in 2003, and the following year he was jailed for eight months for assault after he punched the then-justice minister during a heated debate in parliament on the land appropriation programme. Bennett's lawyer said he is expected in court Monday. see
Bennett was arrested on Friday on the day that President Robert Mugabe was swearing in a new unity government and was supposed to be sworn in as the new deputy agriculture minister next week.
Trust Maanda, Bennett’s lawyer, says Bennett is facing 'regurgitated' charges of sedition which he will deny on Monday -- after an arms cache was allegedly discovered in Mutare three years ago. Several MDC officials were arrested and accused of plotting to assassinate President Mugabe but were later released when the case was discredited. The very same charges have been resuscitated and employed against Bennett.
Maanda said Bennett would deny the charges when given the opportunity to sign a warned and cautioned statement on Monday. Analysts have cautioned that his arrest has cast doubts over Zanu-PF’s sincerity to the new deal.
The arrest was a test for Tsvangirai, who had hesitated to join the government for fear he would be in the position of having to answer increasingly desperate calls by Zimbabweans for help, with little power to affect change. Bennett's "safety was guaranteed by the South African and Zimbabwean governments", Tsvangirai said on Saturday. "His arrest ... raises a lot of concerns.
"It undermines the spirit of our agreement. It is very important to maintain the momentum of our agreement."
But Tsvangirai called for patience: "I must say, we have to budget for some residual resistance from those who see this deal as a threat to their interest."
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