Zimbabwe judge in Bennett trial asked to step down

Zimbabwean lawyers, defending MDC official Roy Bennett in a terrorism trial, yesterday asked the presiding judge to step down, saying they believed he had previously made comments that could be prejudicial to Bennett’s case.
The trial of Bennett, an ally of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has stoked tensions in a unity government formed this year with old rival President Robert Mugabe.
Bennett, who is treasurer-general in Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was arrested in February on charges of possessing weapons for terrorism, banditry and insurgency. The charges carry a maximum death penalty.
High Court Judge Chinembiri Bhunu met Bennett’s lawyers and state prosecutors in his office, where the defence team told him they believed that comments he made in a bail application by the state’s star witness in 2006 would be prejudicial to Bennett if the judge continued with the case.
Bhunu will decide whether to recuse himself on Monday.
“We don’t want to enter the dock feeling that the noose is already here (around the neck) and that it just needs to be tightened,” defence lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa told journalists.
Mtetwa said the judge had in May 2006 refused to admit bail to the state’s chief witness Peter Hitschmann, and in his ruling made certain comments that would question the judge’s impartiality if he continued with the case.
State prosecutors have indicated that Hitschmann who was jailed for two years for possessing dangerous weapons but was acquitted on the more serious terrorism charge  will give evidence that will implicate Bennett.
Defence lawyers say Hitschmann’s testimony would contradict a sworn affidavit and statements he made to the High Court in 2006 and that he had also told his lawyer that he was not prepared to be a state witness.

Pic: Roy Bennett