HARARE (AFP) — The Zimbabwe opposition's number two was charged with subverting government on Thursday and faces a potential death penalty, as more violence was reported before next week's presidential run-off.
Tendai Biti, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) secretary general, faces four charges including subverting the government, election rigging and "projecting the president as an evil man."
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who faces President Robert Mugabe in the June 27 run-off election, dismissed the charges as "frivolous."
The charges stem from documents prosecutors say Biti authored discussing plans to rig the March 29 first-round parliamentary and presidential vote, and planned changes to the military if the opposition came to power.
Citing the documents, prosecutor Florence Ziyambi said "the public violence, the rigging of elections was as a result" of them.
"They are alleging that the president is a criminal since they want to take him to The Hague," she said, referring to the documents and the International Criminal Court.
"The onus is on the accused to prove that he has no connection with the public violence that is happening in the country," said Ziyambi.
Biti's lawyer Hapious Zhou contended in court that the documents on which the prosecutors were basing the charges were forged, calling them "a photocopy of a photocopy."
"There is not even an attempt to simulate the accused's signature," he said.
Referring to the bribery allegations against Biti that prosecutors say led to vote fraud, he said: "How can offering bribes constitute treason?"
Biti is to appear in court again Friday, when a magistrate is to decide whether the charges should be thrown out.
Rights group Amnesty International reported further violence Thursday, saying 12 bodies had been found in various parts of Zimbabwe.
Most victims appeared to have been "tortured to death by their abductors", the organisation said in a statement.
Referring to the ruling party, Amnesty added that "they were allegedly abducted by ZANU-PF supporters who, in some instances, were accompanied by armed men believed to be government agents."
The group said it had also "received information from eyewitnesses that soldiers are going about threatening villagers with guns, instructing them to vote for President Mugabe" in the June 27 run-off election.
With international outrage growing over conditions ahead of the vote, South African President Thabo Mbeki visited Zimbabwe on Wednesday and held separate talks with Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
South African media reported that Mbeki wanted the June 27 election cancelled in favour of talks on forming a national unity government.
He sought to arrange a first-ever meeting between Mugabe and Tsvangirai that would allow for discussions on the issue, the reports said.
"He has warned that the run-off might exacerbate the situation," The Star newspaper quoted an unnamed official as saying.
"He thus prefers a Kenya-style power-sharing pact instead of the run-off."
Kenya was plunged into a deadly political crisis following elections in December. It was only resolved with the formation of a national unity government.
According to The Star, Tsvangirai told Mbeki he was prepared to meet the Zimbabwean president, but Mugabe was resistant to talks with his run-off opponent.
Mbeki spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga refused comment on the reports.
"We have said we are not going to be conducting this process in the media," he said.
The South African president has been appointed mediator in Zimbabwe's crisis by the 14-nation Southern African Development Community, though he has faced criticism over his quiet diplomacy approach.
Tsvangirai has previously called for him to be stripped of his role as mediator.
Others including former finance minister Simba Makoni, who finished third in the first round of the presidential vote, have urged that the election be called off to hold talks on a transitional government.
However US ambassador to Harare James McGee on Thursday dismissed the idea of a "negotiated government" in place of elections to solve Zimbabwe's crisis.
"I don't think the will of the people of Zimbabwe will be met through a negotiated government," said McGee during a lecture at the University of Pretoria.
"This election is absolutely necessary for the will of the people to be heard."
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