Toronto, Tuesday, February 26, 2002
Treason charges trumped-up, Mugabe rival says
Montreal-made video allegedly shows plot to
assassinate Zimbabwe President
Araminta Wordsworth, with files from Sheldon Alberts in Ottawa
A VIDEOTAPE that was secretly produced in Montreal — and which has been criticized as a sham — has been used to lay treason charges against Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party.
Mr. Tsvangirai, head of the Movement for Democratic Change, denounced the charges yesterday as an obvious effort to smear him just two weeks before the presidential election in which he is challenging Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s President.
“Of course, this is intended to divert people…. There is no case to answer. It is a conspiracy. My campaign will go on,” he told reporters after being questioned by police for two hours.
Mr. Tsvangirai said Mr. Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party were trying to convince people of his guilt ahead of the election and any future trial.
Mr. Tsvangirai is considered by analysts to have mounted the sternest challenge yet to the 78-year-old Mr. Mugabe’s 22-year grip on power.
The tape at the centre of the charges is a grainy video shot secretly by Ari Ben-Menashe, president of Dickens & Madson, a Montreal-based political consultancy that has worked as a lobbyist for the Mugabe government.
Mr. Ben-Menashe said he planted a hidden camera in his office and filmed Mr. Tsvangirai on Dec. 4. Though the poor quality of the tape makes it impossible to identify the participants, Mr. Ben-Menashe said it shows Mr. Tsvangirai plotting to assassinate Mr. Mugabe.
The MDC said it was approached by Dickens & Madson, who asked if its consultants could help raise the party’s profile in North America. It did not know of the firm’s links with Mr. Mugabe.
“At no stage during the first three meetings was the issue of elimination or assassination ever discussed,” Mr. Tsvangirai said.
“At the fourth meeting, secretly filmed in Montreal, Ben-Menashe and his team raised the issue of elimination and kept on asking strange questions.” He added he became suspicious of the firm’s motives and walked out.
The resulting eight-minute tape has been airing frequently on Zimbabwean state-run television since it was first broadcast by Australian network SBS.
It shows an overhead view of four men sitting around a boardroom table. The faces of the men, including the one named as Mr. Tsvangirai, are not clear.
In addition, the tape as broadcast bears strong evidence of having been heavily edited.
Looking at the video timing clock that appears in the corner of each frame makes it clear that parts have been “rearranged,” said the independent Mass Media Project of Zimbabwe, an independent media monitoring group.
The group said that state television devoted 35 minutes of its nightly news over four nights to the alleged conspiracy. The opposition’s official denial received 15 seconds of air time on the same news program in the same period.
Mr. Ben-Menashe was in Harare on the weekend for meetings with police and members of the Central Intelligence Organization, and interviews with selected journalists.
Bill Graham, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, warned yesterday that Zimbabwe could be expelled from the Commonwealth and face sanctions if Mr. Mugabe demonstrates he is “beyond redemption” by rigging the elections.
“Our intention is to make sure that if these elections are not fair and free that we deal with Zimbabwe at the Commonwealth,” he said yesterday. “I consider that if we don’t, the integrity of the Commonwealth is at stake.”
Mr. Graham said the government’s decision to charge Mr. Tsvangirai with high treason was not, in itself, enough to trigger punishment by the Commonwealth.
“If he had arrested [Mr. Tsvangirai] and actually physically interfered with his ability to conduct his campaign, I would agree it would be much more serious.”
DESPITE the Zimbabwean media’s description of Mr. Ben-Menashe as “a man of indisputable credibility,” the Dickens & Madson president and his associate Alexander Legault are no strangers to controversy.
U.S. authorities say Mr. Legault masterminded a multimillion-dollar securities fraud in Florida and has been fighting extradition for 18 years, the Montreal Gazette reported. In addition, another Montreal company owned by the pair is named in a series of civil lawsuits alleging breach of contract or fraudulent dealings.
In 1989, Mr. Ben-Menashe was arrested in the United States on charges that he tried to sell military planes to Iran.
After arguing that he had the backing of the U.S. and Israeli governments, Mr. Ben-Menashe was acquitted and wrote a tell-all book about his years in Israeli intelligence.
He later moved to Canada, married a Montreal lawyer and became a Canadian citizen.
© Copyright 2002 National Post