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Mugabe rival acquitted of treason
|October 15, 2004
| A court in Zimbabwe has acquitted opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of treason charges.
Mr Tsvangirai was accused of plotting to kill President Robert Mugabe in 2002 just ahead of elections controversially won by the Zimbabwean leader.
He said he felt "really relieved and vindicated" by the verdict.
Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) called the ruling "a victory for the people of Zimbabwe and a huge blow to the forces of tyranny".
Mr Tsvangirai always maintained that he was framed by state security agents.
"The state has not been able to prove high treason beyond reasonable doubt," said Judge Paddington Garwe, delivering the verdict on Friday.
As the ruling was announced, Mr Tsvangirai broke into a broad smile and his supporters cheered.
We've been vindicated. I think [the verdict] will be a serious morale boost to the MDC and the people of Zimbabwe
Profile: Morgan Tsvangirai
Text: Tsvangirai interview
Judges under pressure
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The opposition leader told BBC News 24 after the verdict that he had felt a "dominating fear about a negative judgement".
"We've been vindicated. I think [the verdict] will be a serious morale boost to the MDC and the people of Zimbabwe."
Mr Tsvangirai is due to return to court next month for a second treason trial, relating to his call last year for street protests to oust Mr Mugabe.
But he said on Friday he was "not so worried" about that case, calling the charges "less serious".
Security forces in Harare were put on high alert before the court opened.
The prosecution case hinged on CCTV footage
Baton-wielding riot police dispersed some 200 supporters of Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from the area of the court.
Mr Tsvangirai's spokesman said that militants from Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party had been allowed to fill up the court, while the MDC's top leadership were denied entry.
Sanctions, including a travel ban, were imposed on Mr Mugabe and other Zimbabwe leaders, by the United States and the European Union, which accused him of stealing the 2002 election.
Zimbabwe is in the grip of an economic crisis, with food shortages, annual inflation running at more than 300%, and more than half the adult population unemployed.
Mr Tsvangirai's trial began 20 months ago and the verdict had already been delayed for two months.
The case centred on the testimony of Ari Ben-Menashe, a Canada-based consultant.
He testified that in a secretly-filmed meeting in December 2001, Mr Tsvangirai asked him to arrange the assassination of President Mugabe.
The defence team says the grainy tape was doctored as part of a plot to entrap Mr Tsvangirai.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe
The key prosecution witness had been employed to lobby for Mugabe's party
Mr Tsvangirai's lawyer said Mr Menashe was a "notorious and demonstrable liar" who was on the payroll of the government and aimed to discredit the opposition leader ahead of the presidential election in March 2002.
Mr Tsvangirai lost the election, which he regards as stolen by Mr Mugabe.
In 1997, another Zimbabwe opposition leader, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole was convicted of treason and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.
He also claimed that he had been set up by the state security service.
Political tension is rising in Zimbabwe ahead of elections next year, which the MDC has threatened to boycott.
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