In Zimbabwe security and civil rights clash

Government disrespect for the law worries some observers here more than the sporadic antigovernment activity around the country.

Some may argue that dissident acts sometimes require restrictions on civil rights. But apparent disdain for the courts by the executive branch and lack of concern for prisoners' rights have prompted some concern that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's respected policies of moderation may be ending.

The latest concern focuses on two high-ranking white Air Force officers. Lawyers for the men claim they endured psychological and physical mistreatment, including torture, during their detention.

The government has charged the men with complicity in a July attack on an Air Force base that grounded a quarter of Zimbabwe's Air Force. It reportedly held the two officers and an undisclosed number of other white Air Force men for two to four weeks without bringing charges and without allowing them to see their lawyers.

The government allowed the men access to counsel only after a high court judge ordered it to do so. The public was barred from the hearing on the prisoners' right to counsel by government order, an order with which the judge said he complied reluctantly.

The clash between the judicial and executive branches centers on Home Affairs Minister Herbert Ushewokunze. A few months ago he strongly criticized the courts for being too easy on dissidents. Since that time, his ministry has had several run-ins with judges.

That ministry, which includes the attorney general's office, refused to release two white brothers, Alan and Noel York, whom it had held for four months without charge.

Police re-arrested the York brothers in May after a court had cleared them of illegal arms possession. Later, the government refused to let them go or to tell a judge where they were being held.

The impasse prompted the chief justice to seek a meeting with Mr. Mugabe. A few weeks after the meeting, the government announced it had released the Yorks on ''humanitarian grounds.'' The Yorks refused to discuss their case, but the stated reason for the release appeared to be a face-saver for Mr. Ushewokunze.

Last year, Mr. Mugabe sacked Mr. Ushewokunze from the health minister's post after he repeatedly criticized the Public Service Commission, which is run from the prime minister's office. It appeared that Mr. Mugabe had brought Mr. Ushewokunze to heel again in the York affair.

But the long detention without charge of the Air Force officers has led to more concern over the government's attitude toward civil rights. The Times of London criticized some members of Mugabe's Cabinet recently. Its editorial said the home affairs minister showed signs of ''spiteful authoritarianism'' reminiscent of the previous white-minority government.

Other recent events also worry whites here. Two white journalists were detained for several weeks without charge, then released last week. They are now in South Africa but wouldn't comment on their arrest. The government said it did not order them to leave.

The government continues to insist on changes in the parliamentary structure set in the 1979 Lancaster House constitutional agreement. Even Mr. Mugabe criticizes the clause that reserves 20 legislative seats for whites, giving 3 percent of the population one-fifth of the representation in Parliament.

A deputy minister alarmed white farmers this week by saying the government might consider departing from other constitutional provisions that ensure land won't be forcibly taken from whites and given to blacks.

Meanwhile, six white tourists kidnapped in July are still missing. The government refuses to comply with their captors' demand to free two officials of the strongest opposition party, the Zimbabwe African People's Union.

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