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Opposition leader in Zimbabwe convicted of plotting to kill president

December 6, 1997

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ A minister and veteran opposition leader was convicted Friday of plotting to kill President Robert Mugabe, his former ally.

The Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, 77, faces possible life imprisonment after a judge found him guilty of planning two failed attacks on Mugabe’s motorcade west of the capital in 1995. Two of Sithole’s former security guards have been convicted for their part in the effort to kill the president.

Sithole also was found guilty of recruiting young men for an armed wing of his small opposition party and of possessing weapons.

The minister sat impassively at the Harare High Court as Judge Esmael Chatikobo read his ruling. Defense lawyer Tendai Biti said his client would appeal.

Chatikobo set a sentencing hearing for Dec. 17 and freed Sithole on bail.

The judge said state prosecutors had proven in the two-week trial that Sithole, a Congregational minister, plotted the attacks during a meeting with the two guards, William Nemakonya and Simba Mhlanga, at his Harare farm.

In the first botched attempt, the two men failed to detonate an antipersonnel mine as Mugabe’s motorcade passed by. In the second case, Nemakonya was found by soldiers hiding alongside a highway with a mine, an assault rifle and ammunition before Mugabe approached. Mhlanga fled but was arrested later.

The minister is one of the few important challengers to Mugabe, the most hard-line of the black liberation leaders who fought a bitter bush war against the British colonial government of Rhodesia in the 1970s.

Sithole founded the ruling party in 1963 but later lost the leadership to Mugabe. He then started his own opposition party and spent eight years in exile in the United States, returning in 1992.

In 1969, Sithole was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for attempting to assassinate colonial-era Prime Minister Ian Smith.

When minority white rule ended and Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe in 1980, Mugabe came to power amid expectations that the country would become a model of democracy in Africa.

Instead, he has created a virtual one-party state and harassed critics to ensure the continuation of his power.

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