Bennett, a commercial farmer before he was forced to flee from Zimbabwe in 2006 would have presided over a ministry in charge of a racially and politically charged farming sector.
He was arrested on Friday, February 13, moments before the private plane he was flying on was before to take off for Johannesburg, South Africa. As newly appointed cabinet ministers were sworn in at State House in Harare Bennett was driven away, reports say in a vehicle belonging to the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga.
Driving at high speed the 4Ãƒâ€”4 vehicle headed east, away from the capital city. By sundown Bennett was in police cells in the city of Mutare, 270 km away from Harare. He has remained in remand prison there. Original charges of treason were dropped and he now faces charges of attempting to commit terrorism, banditry and sabotage.
The High Court granted him bail 11 days later. The Attorney General's office opposed the bail and Bennett remains in jail after the State appealed against the High Court order.
Back in 2004 he pushed the Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa, to the floor during an altercation in Parliament. A parliamentary committee found him guilty and sentenced him to 15 months in prison. He served eight months in Chikurubi Maximum Prison.
In 2006 the State implicated Bennett in a treason case. Bennett fled to Johannesburg with his family. They remained there after the South African government granted them political asylum.
I caught up with Heather Bennett in Johannesburg on Monday and the following are excerpts from the interview conducted with the wife of Zimbabwe's most high-profile prisoner:
QUESTION: What do you think is the reason behind Roy's arrest?
ANSWER: Roy's arrest is completely political. Firstly, I think they see Roy as a threat. I think they (being Zanu-PF) are afraid when Roy takes office as Deputy Minister of Agriculture he will be able to prove to the world how this whole land grab was just a political move by Zanu-PF to stay in power. Most of the farms were given to army or military heads, to Zanu-PF MP's and to judges loyal to Zanu-PF as patronage tools to keep them loyal to Robert Mugabe.
If an audit of farms is done, which the MDC policy states, which speaks of rationalisation of farm ownership through an independent committee constituted and legalised by an Act of Parliament, it is going to show how many farms that were productive a few years ago are now lying in ruins, because the people that were given the farms sold all the assets and then moved on to another farm. It is alleged Patrick Chinamasa has gone through nine farms like this, selling all the assets then having access to Government subsidized fuel, fertilizer, seed etc and selling them. The whole land issue has had nothing to do with addressing historical injustices as Mugabe would have the world believe through his propaganda. It was a political tool of survival on the eve of an election he was sure he would lose.
Secondly, I think the Zanu-PF old guard cannot stand the fact that Roy is loved and respected openly by the people of Zimbabwe. He is one white person whose image they have dismally failed to tarnish in the eyes of the people of Zimbabwe, despite and in spite of their propaganda. Zanu-PF knows but they are refusing to accept that the tide of change has gripped Zimbabwe and is irreversible.
QUESTION: Do you think he will be released soon?
ANSWER: This is completely dependent on the inclusive government. They have to respect the Rule of Law. Bail has been granted and Roy should be released immediately. The judgment of the High Court must be respected and the inclusive government and the Prime Minister must insure that the judgment calling for the release of my husband is adhered to. There must be evidence of some change in how the government of Zimbabwe treats people. All political prisoners must be released.
QUESTION: Do you feel that Roy was let down by the MDC party?
ANSWER: Yes, I feel he is being let down by all parties in Zimbabwe because I have heard very few statements from individuals condemning his detention and that of the other political detainees too. Â I think everybody that has taken posts within this inclusive government should be ashamed of themselves that they have done this while Roy Bennett and others who were fighting to bring democracy to Zimbabwe are still locked up in prison under the most horrendous conditions. Â I wonder if they can sleep well at night. I know that if any of them were in prison, Roy would be doing everything possible to get them out. He would spend sleepless nights to get them out. I know what he did when Morgan Tsvangirai and some of the leaders of civic society were brutalised on March 11, (2007). I feel they have let my husband down. I still appeal to them to re-look at their conscience.
QUESTION: Do you advise Roy to pursue his ministerial appointment if released?
ANSWER: Roy has always been committed to the democratic process in Zimbabwe and I know that whatever decision he takes I will stand by him and that his decision will be for the betterment of the Zimbabwe people and not for himself.
QUESTION: Was Roy nervous about going back to Zimbabwe?
ANSWER: Yes, obviously like anybody else, he was nervous. He is brave but not stupid. Anybody that knows the evil of Zanu-PF knows that they can not be trusted. So, yes, he was nervous
QUESTION: Who do you think is behind Roy's arrest?
ANSWER: Robert Mugabe, Patrick Chinamasa, and Constantine Chiwenga.
QUESTION: Do you communicate with Roy while in police custody, if so what is he saying?
ANSWER: I don't communicate with Roy. He is only allowed a visitor once a week. Â I am still in South Africa so I have not spoken to him at all since his arrest. Â I spoke to his lawyer who conveyed to me the living conditions in the prisons and it is disgusting, one can just imagine. Four prisoners have died in the period Roy has been there. Basically they have starved to death. Â In one incident a dead body was in Roy's cell for the greater part of the day. Its torture!
QUESTION: How is Roy's health at the moment?
ANSWER: Roy was abducted from Charles Prince Airport, driven at speeds over 150km/h to Mutare endangering his life. He was then put into police cells then into Prison. The prisons are in a disgusting state in fact I think Amnesty International got into the prisons in Zimbabwe and the report from them said they were not fit for human life, cholera is rife so I am very worried about his health.
One just has to look at the other political detainees, Jestina Mukoko, Chris Dhlamini and Gandhi Mudzingwa, their health has been badly affected since being incarcerated.
QUESTION: What made him return to Zimbabwe, was he convinced by Tsvangirai or anyone else?
ANSWER: Roy returned in good faith after the signing of the Global Political Agreement, and after South Africa, SADC and the AU leadership guaranteed this agreement and the inclusive government. He returned as he is committed to Zimbabwe and was eager to start the rebuilding process. He was assured by the South African government that nothing would happen to him.
QUESTION: Did Roy mention to you that President Motlanthe had assured him he would be safe on return to Harare?
ANSWER: Roy certainly mentioned that he had been given guarantees by South Africa. I do not know who?
QUESTION: Can you say something about Bennett's three years in exile? What did it mean to you, him, and the family?
ANSWER: Roy spent his three years in exile fighting to bring change to Zimbabwe so he could return home. He was desperate to go home and rebuild his life and help rebuild Zimbabwe.
QUESTION: What is your family doing for a living? Do you have farms somewhere within the continent?
ANSWER: Roy was working fulltime for the MDC here in South Africa when he was arrested. We have no farms, not in Zimbabwe or anywhere else on the continent, we only owned one farm, Charleswood, in Chimanimani that was taken by the government in 2003.
QUESTION: What are your plans? Are you going back to Zimbabwe if Roy is released and starts pursuing his national duties?
ANSWER: Yes we will all go back home, we are in South Africa as refugees and would want to go back to Zimbabwe as soon as possible. I think I speak for Millions of Zimbabweans here, who would all go home as soon as they thought it safe and could see that the Rule of Law and Human Rights were being respected and that we could all start rebuilding our lives again. But arresting Roy I am sure causes a lot of hesitation for us and am sure a number of other activists that have been all over the world as refugees. But no doubt we want to go back home.
QUESTION: Does Roy still have his refugee status or did he renounce it?
ANSWER: I am not sure how that works but he certainly has not renounced it.
QUESTION: Are you happy that Roy was appointment Deputy Minister of Agriculture?
ANSWER: I think that portfolio will obviously be a difficult one but whatever position Roy is given he will do it with utmost honesty and make it work, so I would be comfortable with whatever position he was given and for that matter if he does not have a position, as long as he can do what he loves best, working with the people of Zimbabwe.
QUESTION: How many children do you have and where are they?
ANSWER: Two and they are with me here in South Africa.
QUESTION: Are you optimistic about the unity government?
ANSWER: The inclusive government can only work if they respect the rule of law and human rights and at this stage they are clearly not doing that.
QUESTION: What's your message to SADC and the AU leadership who are guarantors of the inclusive government that is currently detaining Roy?
ANSWER: I would ask them to stand by the agreement they guaranteed and not let Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF to continue to be bullish and insincere. Zanu-PF must take the agreement seriously. I am sure that if the leadership of SADC and the AU commit themselves; we can make this continent a wonderful place for everyone.
I would plead with SADC and the AU leadership to ensure the safe and immediate release of my husband, Jestina Mukoko and all political prisoners. I think they need to pressurize the Zimbabwe government to release Roy and the other political detainees as their continued incarceration is completely illegal and is obviously political. Â The Zimbabwe government should be forced to respect the rule of law and human rights. Â I do not think that the Zimbabwe Government should be supported in any way until such times as they respect the rule of law. I understand that Jestina is chained to her hospital bed. That is clearly inhuman and degrading. The inclusive government must really respect human rights and show that things have changed.
QUESTION: There are allegations that some of your properties, assets and cattle were taken by senior ZANU-PF officials, how far true is that?
ANSWER: That is 100 percent true. When the government took Charleswood we were not allowed to take anything with us. We had to leave with nothing I do not think a lot of people understand this. Imagine walking out of your house now and never going back, never being allowed one single thing. Imagine leaving our vehicles, our furniture, our clothes, and things you have collected over a life time, things that were passed down from generation to generation. Also with taking the farm from us the way they did it meant Roy no longer had a job. We no longer have a roof over our heads. We have to start from scratch.
Apart from us the Government also evicted all the workers from Charleswood, they too lost their homes, their Jobs, their friends, the school their children were going to, the farm clinic where they could get free medication, a lot of our workers were on long term medication that they now had no access to.
They lost everything too.
Ntando: Thank you, Mrs Bennett, for your time and answers. I wish Roy luck.
Heather: Thanks Ntando