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By Michael Rowan, El Universal

A high court judge stood up to the democratic dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe last week by ruling that Morgan Tsvangirai was not guilty of treason and conspiracy to assassinate the strongman. These were charges brought by Mugabe's prosecutors against Tsvangirai, his election opponent, just before a 2002 presidential election in which Mugabe defeated him in an obviously rigged election. Mugabe used evidence from an informer who claimed Tsvangirai wanted the "elimination" of Mugabe, which the prosecutor interpreted as treason against the state, a crime punishable by death. By ruling the government charge insufficient of evidence, high court judge Paddington Garwe reasserted a principle that most people in Zimbabwe thought was long dead: an independent judge who delivers justice contrary to the wishes of the political boss.

A similar case faces a Venezuela court next week. The Chavez government is charging Alejandro Plaz, Maria Corina Machado, Luis Enrique Palacios and Ricardo Estevez, leaders of the citizen's rights group Sumate, with conspiracy to destroy the Republic - basically treason - a crime punishable by eight to 16 years in prison. The grounds for this charge are patently absurd: Sumate received a grant for voter education workshops from the public interest group National Endowment for Democracy, which the government charges is a front for the US Central Intelligence Agency that supposedly is conspiring to destroy the Republic. The NED president Carl Gershmam calls the charges scurrilous, and the US is furious about the accusation, which could rapidly turn relations between the countries to muck.

Just as Mugabe wanted to imprison Tsvangirai, Chavez wants to imprison Sumate for an obvious reason: in its stalwart defense of voters rights, it has come too close to the truth of the recall referendum, which this government has done everything in its considerable power to cover up. Borrowing a page from one-man-rule Mugabe, whom Chavez calls a great defender of freedom, the government plans to use the courts as a political tool to silence critics for many years to come. Next week will tell whether Chavez has better luck at doing that than Mugabe did last week.

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