Zimbabwe tense as court rules on fate of farmers

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The freeing of 21 white farmers, in jail for almost two weeks after clashing with black squatters, could set off a new round of bloodletting on farms, Zimbabwe state prosecutors told the High Court yesterday.

The farmers from the tense Chinhoyi area, who are charged with assaulting invaders on one of the white-owned farms, will learn today whether they may be released on bail.

Sporadic violence and looting of the white-owned farms around Chinhoyi continued yesterday, and the Commercial Farmers' Union appealed to the government to provide safety assurances for the farmers to continue operations "in the face of the ongoing organised wave of property destruction and theft by criminals".

In a further ominous sign, four journalists of the independent Daily News who were detained on Wednesday were picked up again by police yesterday. The new charge is publishing a subversive statement. Their lawyer, Lawrence Chibwe, said: "I have been promised that they will not be incarcerated or detained. An attempt to charge the Daily News editor, Geoff Nyarota, and three of his journalists, with publishing false news was rejected by a judge on Wednesday, and the four were released.

The farmers in jail, who include two British nationals, yesterday appealed a ruling by a lower court in Chinhoyi which denied them bail on 10 August. But Judge Rita Makarau said she needed time to study the arguments. She asked the farmers' lawyer, Firoz Girach, whether freeing the farmers on bail would endanger their safety and that of the entire community in Chinhoyi in view of revenge attacks against farmers by President Robert Mugabe's militant supporters.

Mr Girach said individual liberty was sacrosanct and no one should be denied their freedom because of arguments about security. "To say you must be incarcerated for your own safety is ridiculous," he told the court. "It's like saying, 'Let's convict you even if you are innocent because if we acquit you the community will be upset'."

The state's lawyer, Ben Chidenga, said the farmers' release on bail would upset the militants who could launch revenge attacks. He also said the farmers could interfere with police investigations or even abscond if released.

But Mr Girach dismissed the state's arguments, pointing out that a Briton, Anthony Barkley, and his son had lived on their farm in Zimbabwe for 15 years and were permanent residents. Their chances of absconding with the remainder of the farmers, who were all Zimbabwean citizens, were nil.

Mr Girach said the Chinhoyi magistrate who denied the bail had not considered that six of the men had been arrested "to placate the hostile crowd" at a police station where they had gone to check on their colleagues' welfare. He said the jailed farmers were denied access to their clothes, food and washing facilities.

Jane Williams, speaking for the Commercial Farmers Union, said £12.5m had been lost to looting and revenge attacks on 46 commercial farms by self-styled war veterans over the past week. One hundred white families have now abandoned their properties in Chinhoyi for safety elsewhere.

The Zimbabwe government has accused the white farmers of inciting the violence. Its daily publication, The Herald, yesterday said the British Government and white commercial farmers had instigated the looting after the farmers' arrest. The newspaper said the plot between the white farmers and the British High Commission in Harare to have the farms looted was meant to tarnish Zimbabwe's image abroad and to justify external intervention in this southern African country's internal affairs. A spokesman at the British High Commission, Richard Lindsay, said the claims were "baseless and nonsensical".

Zimbabwe has been in crisis since February last year when militant government supporters started invading white farms with the approval of President Mugabe, who has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980. Yesterday he vowed to remain in power until he had overseen the redistribution of white farms to black peasants. He also ruled out an opposition victory in presidential elections next year.