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The man who stood up to Mugabe

Zimbabwean opposition politician Roy Bennett goes on trial for treason.

Zimbabwean opposition politician Roy Bennett, holding his dog, Vickie, at his home in Harare. Bennett is facing a treason trial for allegedly plotting to overthrow Robert Mugabe. (Alex Duval Smith/GlobalPost)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — With his dapper suits and black-dyed mini-moustache, President Robert Mugabe has come to represent the image of the modern-day dictator.

His nemesis is a heavy-set, plain-talking, pink-skinned accidental politician who runs a panel-beating business and greets visitors cradling Vickie, his dachshund.

Arguably the most popular man of any race in Zimbabwe, 52-year-old Roy Bennett has begun a court ordeal in the capital, Harare, in which he faces life in jail for allegedly plotting to overthrow Mugabe in 2006.

Currently on bail, the former farmer is accused of buying $5,000 worth of arms to carry out "acts of insurgency, sabotage, banditry or terrorism.’’ He emphatically denies the charge and says he is eager to take up his job as deputy agriculture minister in the country’s 11-month-old power-sharing government.

The state's case was substantially undermined when the prosecution's key witness testified Thursday that state agents  tortured him until he falsely implicated Bennett.

Mugabe, 85, has a track record of putting his political rivals on trial for treason. Bennett, who was first arrested in February, is the 10th. The color of his skin and his track record make him the most emblematic.

"I am a native through generations of history that was no choice of my own," says the senator whose northern Irish grandfather, a mining company assayer, settled in the British colony of Rhodesia in the late 1800s. "Barring a few generations, our history is no different from that of Australia or the United States, only there, the settlers killed the local inhabitants. Rhodesian settlers built roads and hospitals and, in the space of 150 years, the population expanded from 350,000 to 14 million."

That population, repressed by the British colonizers and then by the white rule of Ian Smith's Rhodesia, fought a bitter war to gain independence in 1980. After 20 years, Mugabe had entrenched his government which became marked by corruption, human rights abuses and declinging services. That is what gave rise, 10 years ago, to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) — now Zimbabwe's main opposition party of which Bennett is treasurer-general.

The court case of the former farmer is based on a confession from a gun merchant, Mike Hitschmann, whose own trial in 2006 was dismissed when it was ruled that the testimony was obtained by torture. Observers who have been in court since Bennett’s trial started in November describe a confused attorney-general leading a case which is akin to a plot-less film script in which plausible characters have been cast.

At the December congress of Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the president once again hammered home his objections to Bennett: "This is your country and not for whites. Not the Bennetts. They are settlers, even if they were born here they are offspring of settlers.’’