Four white Zimbabwe farmers are to be charged in court Friday for failing to leave their homesteads in defiance of a government order to do so. Almost 3,000 white farmers defied the deadline and remained in their homes.

Police visited several farms Thursday, asking the owners why they defied the law.

Four of them in Zimbabwe's southern Matabeleland province have now become the first to be charged with failing to abide by the government eviction notice.

Lawyers representing the farmers say they have been ordered to appear in a court Friday in Gwanda, south of Zimbabwe's second city Bulawayo. If convicted, they face a heavy fine or up to two years in prison.

The lawyers say they will contest the charges, and using recent cases won by some farmers, will challenge the constitutionality of their eviction notices. The lawyers say they will then ask for the cases to be referred to the country's highest court.

Two of those to appear in court are regional officials of the mainly white Commercial Farmers' Union, the CFU. Late last year, the CFU abandoned the tactic of taking the government to court over the dispossession of its members. It said it would rather engage the government in a process of dialogue.

As a result, a splinter group of white farmers, calling themselves Justice for Agriculture, was formed and it has recently won several important cases.

Zimbabwe's agriculture minister, Joseph Made, told the state press Wednesday that farmers who claim to have been chased off their farms are lying. He said they had hired imposters to fake their expulsions, in order to further tarnish Zimbabwe's image.

He was not available for comment about the summons issued to the four farmers. The court appearances are seen as a landmark event in the 30 months of human and economic turmoil arising from the government land redistribution program.

The August 8 deadline for farmers to leave their homes came and went with only a few isolated incidents. Several homesteads were trashed while farmers went on holiday in order to be away from their farms over the deadline period. On Wednesday, some black settlers began enforcing the eviction order, forcing one farmer and his family from their land.

Last week President Robert Mugabe said any loyal white citizen who wished to continue farming on one property would be allowed to do so.