By Philimon Bulawayo
MUTARE, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - A Zimbabwe court on Tuesday charged a senior MDC party official over a plot involving terrorism and insurgency, just days after the party joined a unity government with President Robert Mugabe.
But lawyers for Roy Bennett asked the court to drop the charges, saying a court had thrown out similar charges in a related case in 2006.
Bennett was charged with illegally possessing firearms for the purposes of trying to commit acts of insurgency, banditry and terrorism and violating the Immigration Act for trying to leave the country illegally last Friday.
Bennett, who was meant to be deputy farm minister in the administration, was arrested before ministers were sworn in on Friday after entering the country from South Africa and the case raised doubts among political analysts about the new government.
But a senior party official said the MDC may be reluctant to quit the new unity government formed to lead the country out of economic crisis despite Bennett's arrest.
While Bennett appeared in the eastern city of Mutare, Mugabe chaired the first cabinet meeting of the unity government in the capital Harare, but details were not available.
The United States criticised the case against Bennett, suggesting it did not bode well for the success of the coalition government.
"I do not think it indicates any goodwill," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told journalists.
Wearing a white T-shirt and three-quarter khaki shorts, Bennett looked composed at his court appearance.
The prosecution, with the consent of the defence, agreed that the charges should be changed from treason to illegal possession of firearms for insurgency, banditry or terrorism purposes and violating immigration laws.
DEFENCE WANTS CASE DROPPED
But the defence later argued the latest charges against Bennett were similar to those levelled against ex-soldier Michael Hirshmann in a related matter in 2006, which the courts threw out. Bennett could therefore not face the same charges, they said.
Mutare magistrate Livingstone Chipadza was due to rule on the application on Wednesday.
Bennett, a founding MDC member, is a former white farmer and legislator who was one of Mugabe's most outspoken critics.
He had been living in exile in South Africa after fleeing Zimbabwe nearly three years ago because police wanted to question him in connection with the discovery of an arms cache.
Foreign investors and Western donors want concrete signs of stability in Zimbabwe. They have made it clear that funds will not flow to the southern African country until a democratic government is created and economic reforms are made.
A new political crisis will deepen the scepticism of Western countries whose confidence in the new administration is seen as essential for Zimbabwe's economic recovery.
Mugabe and new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai agreed last September to share power, but the deal stalled for months over the allocation of cabinet posts, stirring doubts over whether the old foes could work together.
Zimbabweans face unemployment above 90 percent and prices that double every day. Half the 12 million population need food aid and a cholera epidemic has killed over 3,500 people.