- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

The leading opposition candidate to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe yesterday was charged with treason by the government, just two weeks before voters head to the polls.
The accusations against Morgan Tsvangirai, whose Movement for Democratic Change has mounted a strong challenge to Mr. Mugabe's 22-year rule, brought immediate condemnation from both the U.S. and British governments.
"We're aware of no convincing evidence that there's any basis for these allegations," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.
"It appears to be another tragic example of President Mugabe's increasingly authoritarian rule [and] his government's apparent determination to intimidate and repress the opposition as we approach the March 9th and 10th presidential election."
In London, Foreign Minister Jack Straw called the treason charges "yet another attempt by the Mugabe regime to obstruct the conduct of the election and the ability of the people of Zimbabwe to choose freely and fairly who should lead them."
The treason charges, which under Zimbabwean law could lead to the death penalty, stem from Mr. Tsvangirai's reported role in a plot to assassinate the 78-year-old president. The MDC candidate was questioned for two hours at a police station in Harare before being released.
Mr. Tsvangirai told reporters in Harare that the accusations were part of a "crude smear campaign" by Mr. Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front party, or ZANU-PF.
"For some time now, they've been trying to eliminate me from the political process, and this is part of that process," Mr. Tsvangirai said. "It is a conspiracy. My campaign will go on."
Heather Hurlburt, deputy director of the Washington office of the International Crisis Group, a liberal think tank, said it was increasingly clear that next month's vote will not be free and fair.
Still, Miss Hurlburt said, yesterday's charges are important because opposition leaders are banking on an overwhelming turnout, which would complicate the government's efforts to manipulate the results.
"The big questions now are: Will the government allow the elections to go forward? And what will they do about a big negative result?" she said.
Against a backdrop of a failing economy and strong international criticism, the Zimbabwean campaign has been marred by violence and charges of official intimidation. The government has passed a series of laws clamping down on the opposition and the press.
Mr. Mugabe has defended the laws as necessary to maintain order, charging that Britain, the country's former colonial ruler, is trying to undermine his rule and his efforts to improve the lot of the country's black masses at the expense of a minority white elite.
During the weekend, three international observer teams were attacked by suspected ZANU-PF militants, including a 20-member South African delegation that was visiting an opposition party office in the central city of Kwekwe.
Both the EU and the Bush administration last week imposed targeted sanctions on the Mugabe government. The EU withdrew a team of election observers after the Zimbabwean government refused to admit the delegation's Swedish leader.
Yesterday's treason charges stem from a murky murder plot that has received heavy play in the country's state-owned media.
The government charges that a grainy video, which aired earlier this month on Australian television, shows Mr. Tsvangirai trying to arrange the "elimination" of Mr. Mugabe. The footage reportedly was shot in an office in Montreal on Dec. 4 of last year, where the opposition leader was meeting with a Canadian political consulting firm.
The quality of the tape is so poor that no one can be identified.
Mr. Tsvangirai has said he met with the Canadian firm of Dickens and Madson on a number of occasions late last year to discuss hiring them for the March elections. He strongly denied ever discussing an assassination attempt and said the tape was doctored to incriminate him.
The MDC leader apparently also did not know that Dickens and Madson had a long-standing relationship lobbying for Mr. Mugabe's government.
Ari Ben Menashe, a former Israeli Mossad agent who worked for the Canadian firm, has denied that the Montreal meeting was a sting operation designed to incriminate Mr. Tsvangirai. It was Mr. Ben Menashe who supplied the Australian news program with the videotape.
Mr. Ben Menashe was in Harare over the weekend, meeting with officials of the country's Central Intelligence Organization.
In addition to Mr. Tsvangirai, the government yesterday charged three senior MDC officials with treason for their suspected roles in the murder plot.
Mr. Tsvangirai said yesterday he intended to keep campaigning and said he did not expect to face further questioning before the March 9-10 vote.
"If anything, this will help my image," he said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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