- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

JOHANNESBURG In 1963, lawyer George Bizos saved anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela from the gallows, and Mr. Mandela went on to become president of South Africa. Forty years later, he is defending Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai on a capital charge of plotting to kill President Robert Mugabe.
As the trial continues this week in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, Mr. Bizos is pleading his client's case before Paddington Garwe, whom Mr. Mugabe appointed recently as judge president of the High Court.
Mr. Bizos, 74, arrived in South Africa at the age of 13 after escaping the German occupation of his native Greece in World War II.
In 1948, he enrolled at law school in Johannesburg and met fellow student Nelson Mandela. After graduating, the two often worked together on cases, especially in the field of human rights, and they are still friends today.
Mr. Mandela wrote in his autobiography, "George is a man who combines a sympathetic nature with an incisive mind," and described him as, "one of the bravest and staunchest friends of the freedom struggle that I have ever known."
In 1963, Mr. Mandela was arrested and charged with treason and the state presented compelling evidence that he, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, the father of current South African president Thabo Mbeki, had planned acts of sabotage.
Although Mr. Bizos was a junior member of the defense team, he is credited with convincing Mr. Mandela to make a statement from the dock rather than submitting to cross-examination by the court.
In that speech, Mr. Mandela moved the court with his commitment to a free and democratic South Africa and he and his fellow accused were sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death by hanging.
Mr. Mandela was released in 1990 and elected president in 1994.
Now Mr. Bizos has come out retirement to defend Mr. Tsvangirai, whose case rests on a scratchy videotape recorded in the boardroom of a publicity firm in Canada. The tape purports to show the opposition leader talking about the forced removal of Mr. Mugabe.
It later emerged that the Canadian firm, headed by former Israeli spy Ari Ben-Menashe, was being retained by Mr. Mugabe's government.
Mr. Tsvangirai insists that he is innocent and has been framed.
In segments of the video played to the court over the past three weeks, Mr. Ben-Menashe says it would be possible to "eliminate or assassinate Mugabe or whatever." Later in the tape, Mr. Tsvangirai protests that a constitutional path would have to be followed even if Mr. Mugabe was no longer in office.
Under Zimbabwe's constitution, if the president dies or retires, a fresh election must be held within 90 days.
In court, Mr. Bizos accused Mr. Ben-Menashe of accepting $1 million from the Zimbabwan government and labeled him an unreliable witness and "a fraudster."
Mr. Ben-Menashe interrupted the lawyer and, shaking his fist, shouted across the court, "I really resent that word [fraudster]. I have not been convicted of any crime."
Judge Garwe told both parties that he would not tolerate a "slanging" match.
The trial quickly became bogged down over details of a $1 million contract between the government of Zimbabwe and Mr. Ben-Menashe. The government insisted that it would damage Zimbabwe's national security to make the deal public. But Mr. Bizos insisted on hearing the details, so the trial was moved into the judge's chambers and the lawyers for both sides were warned that they should not divulge details of the proceedings.
In 1963, despite the oppressive nature of South Africa's white minority government, the courts remained independent. The same cannot be said of Zimbabwe.
Over the past three years, Mr. Mugabe has removed judges whose verdicts have displeased him and stacked the High Court with his own supporters. There is no jury system and cases are decided by a judge and two assessors.
Many of Judge Garwe's recent decisions have favored Mr. Mugabe's government.
In March last year, he refused an application from Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change to extend voting in the presidential election. The opposition presented evidence that the government had reduced the number of polling stations in Mr. Tsvangirai's strongholds, creating such long lines that, by the end of voting, some people had been unable to cast their ballots.
Mr. Mugabe was later announced the winner of the vote, but many Western countries including the United States refused to recognize the result.
Before coming to Zimbabwe to defend Mr. Tsvangirai, Mr. Bizos was a strong critic of both Mr. Mugabe and the breakdown of law and order in the country.
But, speaking in Harare, he remained optimistic about his client's chances.
"However oppressive a regime might be, the court is the last forum in which an oppressed person has an opportunity to speak out," he said.


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