White farmers freed but barred from their homes

Twenty-one Zimbabwean white farmers who spent two weeks in prison after clashing with land occupiers backed by President Robert Mugabe were granted bail yesterday.

But all but one were barred by the High Court in Harare from returning to their homes for four weeks. In her ruling, Judge Rita Makarau said she feared the men's return to their farms in Chinhoyi, Mashonaland West, would spark more arson attacks and lootings.

In the first two weeks of this month, pro-government militants and land occupiers clashed with farmers in the corn and tobacco-growing area 190 miles north of the capital.

Allowing one 72-year-old farmer, Gert Pretorius, to return home for health reasons, Judge Makarau added: "The settlers are still on the farms. There is no evidence before me that the appellants and the settlers have worked out a way of living together. There is therefore a high likelihood of public violence and unrest if the appellants are immediately returned to the community."

The 21 farmers, who include two British nationals, have been in custody in Chinhoyi since 6 August and were not in court yesterday. It is believed they will be transported to Harare as soon as they have posted bail. The men have denied assaulting ruling party militants and claim merely to have gone to the assistance of a colleague. In the clashes in Chinhoyi earlier this month, dozens of properties were looted and some 100 white families fled the area for safety.

On 10 August the farmers were denied bail by a magistrate in Chinhoyi on the grounds that they would intimidate witnesses or leave the country. Judge Makarau had been due to rule on their bail application last Friday but delayed her decision until yesterday.

An official of the Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU), which represents Zimbabwe's 4,500 registered white farmers, was unhappy that the farmers had been banned from returning home. "The court had a difficult case but I think it should also have affirmed the rights of the farmers to their property," he said. Since February last year, militant supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) have occupied more than 1,500 mostly white-owned commercial farms, spurred by a government campaign to settle five million poor black people on their land.

The country is large and sparsely populated but the white commercial farmers own the best of its farmland and about eight million black people live on and cultivate the remainder on a subsistence basis. There has been little effort by the government or banks, since the end of white rule in 1980, to create a thriving sector of black commercial farmers.

Now, with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change gaining popularity among the country's well-educated urbanites, President Mugabe is using the land issue to hide his government's own failures. After parliamentary elections in June last year, in which the MDC won nearly half of all seats, a presidential election is due in the first four months of next year.

The near-anarchy over the land issue, and media interest in theattacks on white farmers,have also helped President Mugabe deflect attention from his army's expensive exploits in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

* A white South African building contractor accused of killing a black employee by dragging him behind a pick-up truck in August last year cannot remember the incident, Bloemfontein high court heard yesterday.Pieter Odendaal, 45,said he had taken sedatives and brandy on the day of the death.

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