CAPE TOWN, Feb. 6 (JTA) — A former Israeli spy is the star state witness in a high-profile trial in Zimbabwe. The leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, and two of his senior lieutenants are being charged with treason. If convicted, the three could face the death penalty. The charges arise from a videotape secretly made by Ari Ben-Menashe, who heads the Canadian political consultancy firm of Dickens and Madson. The video is of a December 2001 meeting between Tsvangirai and Ben-Menashe at the firm’s Montreal offices. The state’s case centers on the tape, which purports to depict Tsvangirai seeking assistance from Ben-Menashe to assassinate Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe. Ben-Menashe later presented the videotape to the authorities. “What he didn’t know was that we had a relationship with Mugabe that dated back a few years, so he knocked on the wrong door,” Ben-Menashe was reported to have said of Tsvangirai. The video was screened by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, but withdrawn after an independent media watchdog organization said it had been edited to back up charges against Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai has labeled the claims “nonsense,” maintaining that the video was manipulated to incriminate him. He says the subject of assassination was raised by Ben-Menashe’s staff, but that Tsvangirai dismissed it. “From nowhere they introduced the subject of elimination and kept asking strange questions,” he said. Tsvangirai said the meeting was held to discuss political strategy in the run-up to Zimbabwe’s presidential elections last March. Tsvangirai is being defended by George Bizos, a prominent South African human rights lawyer who represented former South African President Nelson Mandela nearly 40 years ago. Bizos told the court that Ben-Menashe was known for being dishonest and engaging in “fraudulent conduct.” Bizos contended that the tape was made “dishonestly for the purposes of entrapment to achieve a political purpose.” However, the judge refused Bizos’ request to rule the tape inadmissible as evidence on the grounds that it was “inaudible.” Giving evidence at the trial in Zimbabwe’s High Court on Wednesday, Ben-Menashe testified that Tsvangirai approached him for advice about a plan to assassinate Mugabe and topple his government in a coup. Defending his version of events, Ben-Menashe told the court of Tsvangirai’s insistence that political change in Zimbabwe could only be brought about by Mugabe’s death. Tsvangirai “said President Mugabe will not leave the office unless he is carried away in a coffin,” Ben-Menashe said. “Those words were ringing in my mind.” Ben-Menashe said he then signed a $500,000 contract with one of the accused to arrange Mugabe’s assassination — and promptly informed the authorities.
Moira Schneider is a JTA correspondent in South Africa. A law graduate and psychology major, she is the Cape Town correspondent for the South African Jewish Report. She contributes to London's Jewish Chronicle, is a reporter for the Cape Jewish Chronicle and has been published in the Cape Times and Cape Argus.