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Zimbabwe court rejects coerced statements in trial of cabinet nominee

[JURIST] Zimbabwe’s high court Monday struck out evidence from a key witness in the trial of Zimbabwe Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) [party website] party treasurer and deputy agriculture minister-nominee Roy Bennett [BBC profile; JURIST news archive]. Peter Michael Hitschmann was called as the attorney general’s main witness against Bennett, but alleged in court that security officials tortured him while in custody to obtain statements against Bennett. The State sought to use the confessions and additional e-mail correspondence as evidence to impeach Hitschmann [MDC press release] for inconsistent statements. Judge Chinembiri Bhunu ruled that the statements made by Hitschmann were not freely made, invalid, and could not be used as evidence as they were not signed by Hitschmann.

Bennett's trial began in November after being delayed [JURIST reports] in October to allow counsel more time to develop a defense. Bennett's defense lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, asked the court to prohibit evidence obtained from Hitschmann. Bennett faces charges [CNN report] under Zimbabwe's Public Order and Security Act [materials] for unlawfully possessing weapons and provoking others "to commit terrorism, banditry and sabotage." The weapons charges involve a possible death sentence. Bennett was originally arrested on weapons charges in February, and was later released [JURIST reports] on bail in March. Bennett was then re-arrested [Reuters report] on the same charges in October, only to be released on bail again. Bennett was originally sought for questioning [JURIST report] in relation to similar allegations in 2006, but he had been seeking asylum in South Africa until recently [IOL report]. Treason charges against him were dropped [Times report] in favor of the terrorism and other charges. Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai had nominated Bennett to be deputy agriculture minister.

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