Zimbabwe drops "terror" charges against opposition

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HARARE, Oct 9 (Reuters) Prosecutors in Zimbabwe have withdrawn ''terror'' charges against 22 opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) activists because of insufficient evidence, defence lawyers said today.

The activists, including a member of parliament, were arrested in March as President Robert Mugabe's government launched a crackdown on the opposition, which saw MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai severely beaten in police custody.

State prosecutors had charged the men with undergoing terrorism training in South Africa and attempted murder. Prosecutors also said they were responsible for a spate of petrol bombings mainly targeting police stations this year.

Defence lawyer Alec Muchadehama said today the charges had been dropped because of lack of evidence.

''They withdrew the charges before plea. ... They are conceding that they have no evidence to convict although the police are suggesting that they are tying (up) a few loose ends,'' Muchadehama told Reuters.

There was no immediate comment from prosecutors but the MDC said it showed the charges were fabricated.

''This exposes the regime ... the charges were trumped up in preparation for the SADC meeting in Dar es Salaam to justify their brutal attack on defenceless citizens,'' said MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti, referring to a meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in March.

The MDC men, who included some of the party's administrative staff, were released at different times after spending weeks in prison without trial.

The MDC have said their arrest in March and April was part of a government campaign to destroy its structures ahead of general presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

The men were rounded up after anti-riot police stopped an opposition prayer rally in Harare.

The crackdown drew widespread condemnation of Mugabe's strong-arm tactics in handling the opposition and prompted regional heads of state to task South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki to mediate between the government and the opposition.

Mugabe -- Zimbabwe's sole ruler since independence from Britain in 1980 -- denies his controversial policies have ruined a once promising economy and accuses the MDC of plotting with Western governments to unseat him.

REUTERS SG KN1942

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