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Zimbabwe Begins Enforcing New Laws on Farm Takeovers

Zimbabwe has new laws to fast track legal processes for the state to take over thousands of white-owned farms. Many of these farms have already been physically taken over by ruling Zanu PF supporters, but the paperwork is outstanding. Among the properties being processed through the courts Monday are several farms owned and still operated by South African and other foreign farmers.

The first case at the administrative court Monday was about the only piece of land owned by an 81-year-old white South African man who has lived in Zimbabwe most of his life.

His home is on the piece of land in question, in a dry ranching district in southern Zimbabwe, and he wants to keep it.

He is one of a minority of white farmers who have never been attacked or had their property invaded since President Robert Mugabe sent his supporters to take over white-owned farms in 2000.

A recent amendment to the land law cancelled most previous criteria which would exclude properties for confiscation, such as farmers who owned only one piece of land, or foreign owned land or agricultural estates, such as those producing sugar and tea.

The farmer's lawyer Rodney Makavsi told the court that the independence of the judiciary was at stake. He said there were judges who were beneficiaries of land from the government which made them interested parties in this and similar cases. He said the constitution guaranteed everyone a fair trial presided over by judges who were independent from the executive arm of government.

In the last five years, most of about 4000 white farmers have been evicted, often violently, from farms which were also their homes. However the state's paperwork has fallen behind and only about 450 have been processed through the courts so far.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa vowed late last year that the courts would make great efforts to complete the process. New courts are being set up and cases are being held in judges' chambers.

Mike Clark, from the Commercial Farmers Union is following the case for affected farmers in southern Zimbabwe, among them about 15 South Africans. He links the fast track of land trials to next month's parliamentary elections. "We look after about 40 farmers who are still sort of farming," he said. "We have been relatively left alone until now. There seems to be a mass acquisition program going on now, and its very questionable. We have been left alone for so long and now with elections...we have actually got these fast tracking of cases coming to court. "

Mr. Clark said confiscation of foreign-owned land sends a clear message that no foreign investment in Zimbabwe is safe.

Zimbabwe's law firms say they are clogged with the sudden rush of land cases and that another new law gives them only five days to prepare a defense.