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10/20/04 - ZIMBABWE ACQUITTAL  - 2004-10-22

A court in Zimbabwe has acquitted the leader of the country's largest opposition political party of treason. Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Movement for Democratic Change, was accused of taking part in a plot to assassinate Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2001. A judge said there was no credible evidence to convict Mr. Tsvangirai. The opposition leader says he is relieved:

"I think it was unexpected because of the political environment in which we operate. But we cannot celebrate yet, because the political environment is neither improved nor are there any signs of improvement."

The human rights group Amnesty International issued a statement saying that "The trial of Mr. Tsvangirai was a politically-motivated prosecution in keeping with a wider pattern of arrest and trial on spurious charges as a form of harassment of the political opposition in Zimbabwe."

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says that the U.S. welcomes the acquittal, and hopes it signals a more constructive approach by the government, particularly with respect to upcoming parliamentary elections:

"To do that, electoral reforms will be necessary, but unfortunately the electoral reforms that are currently under consideration by the Zimbabwean government fail to address fundamental flaws in the election environment."

For Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections to be free and fair, there needs to be an independent election commission, media access for all political parties, freedom of assembly, and an end to political violence. "Those are the kind of steps that we are looking for," says State Department spokesman Boucher. "If this positive development of the acquittal is to lead to anything better, it's going to have to be followed by serious steps like these for electoral reform."