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Zimbabwe Farmers Released on Bail; Lawyers Prepare to Take Case to Highest Court - 2002-08-16

A court in Zimbabwe has released on bail several white farmers charged with defying orders to vacate their land before a government imposed deadline, but other farmers have been arrested.

At the Magistrate's Court in Gwanda, south of Zimbabwe's second city Bulawayo, six white farmers, mainly ranchers, appeared Friday and were charged with violating a section of the Land Acquisition Act by staying on their farms beyond the deadline. They were released on $5,000 (Zimbabwe) bail and remanded until September 6, when their lawyers are hoping to get the matter referred to the country's highest court, the Supreme Court, which deals with constitutional matters.

In a neighboring province in Matabeleland, at least nine farmers were arrested Friday - one of them a 75-year-old blind man - and are now in Nyamandlolu prison in Matabeleland, and police are apparently looking for another five of them in that area.

There have also been reports that the police have visited many farms in different parts of Zimbabwe looking for white farmers in order to warn them, in some cases, that they shouldn't be there; in other cases to ask them their future plans; and in some cases with warrants for their arrest.

The situation appears to be treated differently from province to province. It seems that the farmers in southern Matabeleland have been targeted probably because those farmers are very, very independent minded, and many of them publicly supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the last elections. And also, the particular governor in that province is a very strong militant and loyal to President Robert Mugabe, much more so than some of the other provinces.

Lawyers for the farmers are contesting the constitutionality of the August 8 eviction order. A precedent was set a few weeks ago when a farmer challenged his seizure of his farm and his imminent eviction, and he won that case in the High Court.

The High Court has a mixture of older judges and new appointments. The Supreme Court itself has never yet had a case testing the constitutionality of the Land Acquisition Act and the aspects of it. There is one long-standing judge, Wilson Sandura, and there are four new appointments who were appointed by President Mugabe to replace other judges who were chased away from their jobs or who quit in disgust.

So it remains to be seen whether or not the new judges in the Supreme Court are going to interpret the precedent set in the High Court, and certainly whether or not it is constitutional to deprive these farmers of their property and livelihood.