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High court clears Tsvangirai of treason

Robert Mugabe
Morgan Tsvangirai

HARARE, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- Zimbabwe's High Court has acquitted opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of charges he conspired to have President Robert Mugabe assassinated.

"I am vindicated; democracy has been vindicated," Tsvangirai said. "I think that it has been an overwhelming judgment for me."

Judge Paddington Garwe pronounced Tsvangirai innocent Friday in a long-awaited judgment, saying the prosecution's treason case was not credible.

The treason charges against Tsvangirai were based on a videotape of a meeting in Montreal between Tsvangirai and Israeli political consultant Ari Ben-Menashe, a Canadian businessman. Prosecutors said the tape that captured Tsvangirai discussing Mugabe's "elimination" was dismissed by the judge.

"Nowhere in the videotape is there a request of Ari Ben-Menashe to assassinate Mugabe and stage a coup," said Garwe.

The defense had argued the video was doctored.

Zimbabwe Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa was outraged, saying Tsvangirai "has been wrongly acquitted."

"There was enough evidence contained in the video and the transcript of the video to secure and justify a conviction in the case," the minister said in a written statement.

He said Tsvangirai had discussed eliminating Mugabe before the election and plotted to engage the military in a power-sharing agreement once Mugabe was removed from power.

Tsvangirai acknowledges discussing "eliminating" Mugabe in conversations with Ben-Menashe that were secretly taped by the Canadian businessman, but he insists that he did not use the words to mean he would 'kill" the president.

Instead, he said Ben-Menashe, who was on the Zimbabwe government payroll, attempted to set him up at the behest of the Zimbabwe government in order to remove him from contesting the presidential poll in 2002.

The government denied the charge, and the judge did not find it to be the case.

Tsvangirai said his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) "has its whole spirit lifted up" as a result of the innocent verdict. His supporters cheered and danced outside the courtroom to celebrate the verdict.

Tsvangirai could have faced the death penalty had he been convicted.

He still faces a separate treason charge linked to anti-Mugabe protests the MDC tried to organize in June 2003. But he said he wasn't concerned.

"How can I be worried about the lesser charge?" he asked.

MDC Vice President Gibson Sibanda was more cautious, saying the verdict was "a step in the right direction."

But those in the government who object to the verdict say the judge overlooked key evidence in the case.

It was the "strong view of the government that the judge in the case, Justice Paddington Garwe, clearly underplayed the overwhelming incriminating evidence placed before him by the prosecution," Chinamasa said Friday.

His statement said "a guilty man has been allowed to walk out of the court scot-free."

He added that the government "accepts and respects the verdict," while reserving the right to explore other legal options.

Chinamasa also said the judgment shows Zimbabwe's judiciary is "independent and second to none."

Tensions were high ahead of the verdict, with the government and the MDC accusing each other's supporters of scheming to disrupt court proceedings.

Tsvangirai led a campaign to unseat Mugabe last year, deeming his 2002 re-election was rigged, but was arrested on charges of treason.

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980, won the vote amid charges by the MDC and some Western nations that the election was rigged. Tsvangirai has challenged the result.

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