Zimbabwe politician jailed during Mugabe era among 5 killed in U.S. helicopter crash

Roy Bennett, a prominent Zimbabwe opposition figure in recent years, was among five people killed in a New Mexico helicopter crash, authorities in the southwestern U.S. state said on Thursday.

Roy Bennett, his wife and 3 others were killed Wednesday evening

Roy Bennett, seen at the Zimbabwe High Court in November 2009, was a frequent thorn in the side of dictator Robert Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF Party. (Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images)

Authorities in the U.S. state of New Mexico say a Zimbabwe politician has been killed in a helicopter crash.

State Police Lt. Elizabeth Armijo confirmed Roy Bennett's death Thursday, a day after a helicopter carrying him and five others went down in a mountainous rural area of northern New Mexico. Details of why the 60-year-old Bennett was in the area weren't immediately available. The crash killed five and injured a sixth person aboard.

Obert Gutu, spokesperson for Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, said the loss of Bennett, a white man who spoke fluent Shona and drew the wrath of former President Robert Mugabe, was tragic. Bennett's wife, Heather, also died, Gutu said.

Also killed, according to authorities in New Mexico, were: pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd, 57, of Trinidad, Colo.; co-pilot Paul Cobb, 67, of Conroe, Texas; Charles Ryland Burnett, 61, of Houston.

'A blow to our struggle'

In Zimbabwe, Tendai Biti, a prominent opposition leader and a former finance minister, tweeted that the Bennetts' "tragic passing" was "a blow to our struggle."

In 2004, Bennett was jailed for a year for assaulting a Cabinet minister who had said Bennett's "forefathers were thieves and murderers" during a Parliamentary debate. An enraged Bennett charged the minister, who fell to the floor.

He emerged from prison rail-thin and scarred from repeated sunburns. He told of the mistreatment of fellow prisoners, some of whom he said had starved to death in their cells.

After receiving death threats, Bennett fled Zimbabwe but returned in 2009 after his party nominated him for the deputy agriculture minister in a coalition government with Mugabe's ZANU-PF. Mugabe, who had repeatedly alleged Bennett was the opposition party's contact with foreign funders, refused to swear him in.

'One of us'

He was jailed again in 2009 after a trumped-up conspiracy charge but acquitted in Zimbabwe's High Court in 2010.

He won a devoted following of black Zimbabweans for passionately advocating political change. He was known as "Pachedu," meaning "one of us" in Shona.

Despite his incarcerations, Bennett remained an ardent critic of the dictatorship, calling disputed 2013 elections "a daylight robbery and theft [by] Robert Mugabe's regime" in an interview with CBC's As It Happens.

The Movement for Democratic Change treasurer responds to another election victory for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. 8:31

The helicopter went down about 6 p.m. Wednesday about 24 kilometres east of the small city of Raton near the Colorado state line.

The injured victim of the crash called 911. They said the response was slow because of the rugged terrain and remote area, which has few roads.

Engulfed in flames, the wreckage was spotted on the ranch property east of the small community of Raton. The fire had charred a large area around the crash site.

Authorities say the limited information they have indicated the helicopter was flying from Raton to the community of Folsom, less than 70 kilometres away.

With files from CBC News