Zimbabwe's beleaguered farming community received some good news Friday after a tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Namibia upheld their application seeking protection from future land invasions by the Zimbabwean government.

The tribunal of the 15-nation trade bloc SADC has ruled that Zimbabwean farmers had been victimized because of their race and ordered they be left alone.

The tribunal, which is based in the Namibian capital Windhoek, last year ordered the then government of President Robert Mugabe to stop evicting and harassing 77 white farmers. In it's ruling, the tribunal barred the government from further repossessing white-owned farms, saying the applicants had been discriminated against on the grounds of race.

The ruling was meant to protect farmers from future land invasions, with the government guaranteeing their safety and the right to their land.

The farmers had challenged their eviction under Mr. Mugabe's controversial land reform program, which has seen thousands of white farmers and farmworkers thrown off the land since 2000. Despite last year's ruling, authorities in Zimbabwe have continued harassment of farmers.

The Commercial Farmers' Union said the situation deteriorated sharply after the establishment of an inclusive government in February.

The government of Zimbabwe was represented in court on Friday by Deputy Attorney-General Prince Machaya who did said in court that he had just received instructions from Harare to seek a postponement of the hearing.

But, the tribunal rejected his application and instead, proceeded to hear detailed evidence of the continued persecution of white farmers.

Finding the Zimbabwean government "in breach and contempt" of last year's ruling, on the basis of statements by government officials and the continued "invasions and harassment", the tribunal ordered that the case be reported to the next SADC summit for action.

Advocate Jeremy Gauntlett who in Windhoek in support of the farmers said the ruling was powerful and a triumph for justice in Africa. He said the SADC summit will be tested to see if member states had a commitment to the rule of law.

He said a delegation of senior legal officers from Zimbabwe and farmers' representatives would attend the next SADC summit in Kinshasa.

Several senior western diplomats attended the hearing in Windhoek.

More than 4,000 white farmers and tens of thousands of farm worker families lost their homes and incomes since Mr. Mugabe ordered the first invasions in 2000.

Economists say that Zimbabwe's white farmers produced 40 percent of annual foreign exchange earnings until commercial agriculture was largely destroyed. Now nearly half the population is dependent on food hand outs and Zimbabwe's economy has crashed. (SIGNED)