Zimbabwe's test case

The first major test case of justice in Zimbabwe calls for both immediate and long-term response: * Prime Minister Mugabe and other leaders must make clear that the verdict is not the "license to kill" seen by some in the High Court's freeing of a government minister judged to have committed murder.

* All Zimbabweans -- and, indeed, all mankind -- must work toward eliminating the racial labeling that distorts the face of justice.

Suppose the case had been seen simply in these terms:

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The manpower minister was charged with murdering a farmer at an army post manned by men who, according to the minister, intended to kill him. The judge of the High Court saw the minister as guilty of murder. But the court's two jury-like legal "assessors" gave the minister his freedom under a law passed by a previous government to protect government officials from prosecution if found to be acting "in good faith" against terrorism.

In such a case the outcome might be disputed. The judge's or the assessors' opinions might be debated. But the workings of justice under existing law would be acknowledged to have taken place.

Now consider a typical news account of the episode:

"A Zimbabwean court acquitted black Manpower Minister Edward Tekere, accused of killing a white farmer Aug. 4. A white judge found Tekere responsible, but two nonwhite legal consultants freed him under immunities laws of the previous, white-minority regime. The case has added to the nation's racial tensions."

Was the farmer killed because he was white? Was the judge's opinion reached -- and, in effect, overruled -- because he was white? Was the law under which Mr. Tekere was freed a law to protect people because they were white? Was he freed now because he was black? Such inferences are possible under a view that reinforces the categorization of people by race rather than the recognition of their individuality which must come if genuine justice is to be done -- and perceived to be done -- whether in Zimbabwe or anywhere else. The present case is seen by some in relation to a Zimbabwe justice system that has shown its restraint not only in refraining from prosecuting former Prime Minister Ian Smith, whose regime committed untold crimes in the eyes of the present regime, but in protecting his rights of free speech and political activity. Countries with a far longer history of independence than Zimbabwe, such as the United States, know how race can still intrude on justice.

Now in Zimbabwe the first prediction is of increased "white flight." Outside investors in Zimbabwe's struggling economy are expected to be further discouraged, though perhaps not as much as if Mr. Tekere had been released through political pardon rather than court procedure. Not only black and white divisions are feared but political and tribal divisions within the black population.

Prime Minister Mugabe, to his credit, has taken the stand of not interfering with the course of law and justice. Now he and other leaders, especially Mr. Tekere in his strengthened position, have to indicate through word and deed that they do not want "black" justice but simply justice; that the finding in this case does not mean government officials have immunity from criminal charges applying to others. Consideration might be given to repealing the five-year-old immunity law -- which, after all, was directed against the guerrilla movements now represented in Zimbabwe's government.

White residents, meanwhile, will be weighing the controversial verdict in the context of what else is happening, including things of a more hopeful nature, in these growing-pains days of a free Zimbabwe. In white ranks lie many of the skills needed to join with those of black Zimbabweans for the nation's progress. There can be mutual benefits if there are mutual responsibilities, the more so as the code of color gives way to individual manhood.

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