Zimbabwe court allows seizures of white farmland

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Four judges recently appointed to Zimbabwe's highest court issued an order yesterday allowing the government to proceed with the seizure of white-owned farms.

The interim order came two working days after the conclusion of the court hearing, a record in a country where Supreme Court rulings routinely take at least six weeks.

Adrian de Bourbon, a lawyer for the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents white farmers, said: "I believe we no longer have an independent judiciary.''

Mr de Bourbon said he submitted his last written argument to the court on Friday and was told on Monday that an order would be issued. "It leaves one with the suspicion that argument was not even considered," he said.

At a brief hearing yesterday, Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku said four of the five judges that heard the case agreed to an interim ruling permitting the government to call hearings of the administrative court to confirm farm confiscations under its "fast-track'' land seizure laws.

Last December, five other Supreme Court judges put those hearings on hold after ruling that the land seizures breached the government's own land acquisition laws. That ruling also ordered the government to restore law and order in farming districts and to submit a lawful land reform programme to the court by 1 July.

Ruling-party militants have occupied more than 1,700 white-owned farms across the country since March last year. The government has earmarked 4,500 white-owned farms to be seized and redistributed to blacks.

Last month, the government asked the Supreme Court under Mr Justice Chidyausiku – who was sworn in as Chief Justice on 20 August – to strike down the December ruling. The interim order means the government can legally confirm land confiscations at the administrative court and then give landowners a 90-day deadline to leave their properties.

About 800 confirmation hearings were put on hold by the Supreme Court's December order. The former chief justice, Anthony Gubbay, was forced to take early retirement after the December land ruling, and the government expanded the Supreme Court bench from five to eight judges in an apparent attempt to pack the court in the state's favour.

Mr Justice Chidyausiku chose the three newly appointed judges – seen as favourable to the government – to hear the case alongside him and Ahmed Ebrahim, one of the five other judges who ruled against the government in December.

The Chief Justice normally picks a bench of three to five justices to hear any one case.

Yesterday's ruling said the interim order did not "prejudge" other issues raised in the case and a main ruling would be issued later.

Mr de Bourbon said he tried to seek an adjournment to consider challenging the interim order but was overruled without being allowed to argue any points. "In our view, you cannot give an interim order of this nature without forming a view on the main issues including the rule of law'' in farming districts, he said. "All the white farmers want is for matters to be done in terms of the law.

"Today's ruling infers the court does not acknowledge there is a breakdown in the rule of law,'' as the previous bench had, Mr de Bourbon said. (AP)