- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

JOHANNESBURG

The fate of Roy Bennett, a white farmer whose land was seized by the government of President Robert Mugabe, has become a litmus test of a power-sharing agreement between Mr. Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Police in the city of Mutare, about 150 miles east of the Zimbabwean capital Harare, called for calm Sunday night as protesters refused to disperse outside the jail where Mr. Bennett remained in custody.

The arrest Friday prevented Mr. Bennett from taking up a post as deputy minister of agriculture in the unity government, in which MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister.

Mr. Bennett’s estate south of Mutare was confiscated in 2003 as part of a land-reform program.

He was initially charged with treason after his arrest, but was later cited for a less serious offense of “attempting to commit terrorism, banditry and sabotage and conspiring to acquire arms with a view to disrupting essential services.”

Mr. Bennett returned to Zimbabwe two weeks ago after five years in exile.

The government of Zimbabwe continues to hold several other MDC supporters who were arrested in December.

MDC spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo told reporters Monday that Mr. Bennett was “upbeat,” despite having spent his 52nd birthday behind bars.

“Roy remains strong, solid and in good spirit,” Mr. Mlilo said. “After having been in a crowded cell of 26 inmates, he has been moved to a cell of 12. The other prisoners have been encouraging him to remain strong in the face of adversity.”

Zimbabwe’s white population - mostly of British descent - has fallen from a high of 320,000 in 1976 to an estimated 30,000. Most of those who remain were, such as Mr. Bennett, born in the country and many are third- or fourth-generation Africans.

Mr. Bennett has become one of the most popular members of Parliament, defeating a series of black candidates in his district. His command of the local Shona dialect - known by some academics as “black Latin” because of its complex grammar - has allowed him to address crowds in their home language.

Crowds outside the prison and courthouse where Mr. Bennett had been expected to appear Monday have remained in place since he was jailed.

“Some have walked long distances from the working-class townships in Mutare,” Mr. Mlilo said. “They came to support Roy Bennett.”

On Sunday, police used dogs to chase the demonstrators, but within an hour the crowd was back in place.

Several South African church leaders, including retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have been engaged in a hunger strike demanding the release of all “political prisoners” in Zimbabwe.

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