Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai faced the possibility of being hanged after a High Court judge passed a guilty verdict on charges he attempted to assassinate President Robert Mugabe in the highly-publicised 2005 treason trial.
However, the guilty verdict was reversed after assessors failed to agree with the judge and Tsvangirai was subsequently acquitted.
Conviction could have resulted in capital punishment.
Tsvangirai was then an opposition party leader. Lawyers representing Tsvangirai in the sensational treason case told the United States embassy in Harare on July 22, 2005 that the assessors disagreed with the judge’s guilty verdict.
Justice Paddington Garwe presided over the case in which Tsvangirai was accused of enlisting a Canadian consultancy company, Dickens & Madson, led by Ari Ben-Menashe, to “eliminate” President Mugabe.
“(Then) opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s lawyers told the Embassy on July 22 that the court advised them that announcement of the verdict had been postponed until August, date to be determined,” read a US diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, a whistleblowing website.
“The reason given was that the assessors had requested full transcripts of the trial for further review. The lawyers’ interpretation of this development was that the judge had rendered a guilty verdict with which the assessors disagreed.”
Major Misheck Nyandoro and Joseph Dangarembizi were the assessors although the leaked cable does not mention them by name.
The cable said under Zimbabwean law, each capital case was assigned two assessors selected by the Minister of Justice with the concurrence of the Chief Justice and Judge President.
“The assessors are selected from a pool of individuals deemed to have experience in the administration of justice or skills relevant to the particular case at hand, but are not officers of the court,” it read.
“The assessors hear the entire case. The facts on which a guilty verdict is based must be agreed by the judge and at least one of the assessors.”
The cable said the High Court Act provided that the judge may dismiss an assessor if(s)he determined that the assessor was unable to perform relevant duties.
“In the event of dismissal or death of an assessor, the judge and remaining assessor would have to agree on the facts to support a guilty verdict,” read the cable.
“If they do not, the defendant would remain in custody of the court or remain free if already on bail, and could be tried again. While it may be reasonable to assume the same outcome would ensue from a judge’s failure to elicit concurrence from either assessor when both remain, the law appears to be curiously silent on that more common scenario.”
The cable said local lawyers were unaware of a case in which a judge’s verdict had proceeded without the concurrence of either assessor.
“In at least one case, however, no verdict was rendered when neither assessor concurred, but it is unclear whether that was required by law or merely reflected the prevailing culture of jurisprudence at the time,” said the cable.
The British government was following the case closely and instructed its embassies in South Africa and Nigeria on July 23 to seek engagement on Tsvangirai’s possible conviction.
Then British Secretary of State Jack Straw was reportedly following the matter religiously. Roman Catholic priest Father Fidelis Munokori reportedly undertook to raise the matter with President Mugabe and report back to the former US ambassador Joseph Sullivan.
Read the cable: “At a meeting in his office on July 22, Ambassador Sullivan emphasised to Father Mukonori, Jesuit Provincial of Zimbabwe and confidante of President Mugabe, that a conviction of Tsvangirai on such a flimsy case could only be regarded as a political verdict and would have serious repercussions for the government of Zimbabwe at home and abroad.
“Father Fidelis said he did not think that (President) Mugabe would be involved in ordering a conviction and that (President) Mugabe would not allow a death sentence to be carried out in any event. He undertook to raise the matter with Mugabe when he saw him in the next two weeks and report back to the Ambassador.”