Zimbabwe trial a sign of state-court friction

The state and the judiciary are providing points of friction, rather than pillars of support, for the relatively new nation of Zimbabwe. Having gained independence just over three years ago, Zimbabwe continues to show signs of a preoccupation with its own security. Close observers of that country believe that explains the ongoing clashes between the government and those who would like to see greater respect for the rule of law and civil rights.

A court case in Harare is but the latest source of allegations that the Zimbabwe government is perpetuating some of the civil rights abuses practiced by the former Rhodesian government of Ian Smith. Mr. Smith operated under emergency powers that are still in effect.

On trial in Harare are six white officers of the Zimbabwe Air Force, charged with a major act of sabotage. Last July about a quarter of the country's Air Force was damaged or destroyed when carefully timed explosives ripped through 13 aircraft at the Thornhill Air Base.

A central feature of the ongoing trial is the admissability of confessions signed by all six defendants. All of the Air Force officers have pleaded not guilty, claiming the confessions were forcibly extracted through torture or ill-treatment.

This trial follows a case earlier this year that has become a major point of conflict between the courts and the government. In that trial seven former guerrilla supporters of opposition leader Joshua Nkomo, who has fled Zimbabwe, were acquitted on charges of high treason. All but one were also found innocent of caching arms to topple the government.

However, immediately on their release, all those acquitted were arrested by the police under Zimbabwe's law allowing for detention without charges.

Justifying the continuing detention of men found innocent in court, Zimbabwe Home Affairs Minister Herbert Ushewokunze simply disputed the court's assessment of the facts of the case.

Dr. Ushewokunze went on to say that the court's judgement ''proves the judiciary we inherited from (the regime of Ian) Smith is not in tune with the present government.''

Dr. Ushewokunze has had several run-ins with the courts in the past and has generally criticized the judiciary for being too lenient with people the government labels ''dissidents.'' Last year Dr. Ushewokunze's ministry refused to tell a judge where two white brothers, Alan and Noel York, were being detained after they had been cleared by a court of illegal arms possession. It took a meeting of the chief justice and Prime Minister Robert Mugabe before the two were released.

The government has also shown dissatisfaction with the judicial system during the present trial of Air Force officers. The state prosecutor objected to the fact that the six officers appeared in court in their sharp, blue military uniforms. He wanted them to appear in prison fatigues. The defense said prison apparel would create a strong impression the men were criminals and guilty.

The judge reprimanded the state for trying to impose a condition ''not in accordance with the impartial administration of justice.''

The government responded by changing the law to require that in future, everyone appearing in court would be required to wear prison clothing unless given a special exemption. (The Air Force officers were allowed to continue in civilian clothing.)

The allegations by the Air Force officers that they were ill-treated are not new in Zimbabwe. In a trial of two alleged South African spies late last year, the judge ruled out their confessions because they were made under duress.

Also last year a Zimbabwean white member of Parliament, Wally Stuttaford, successfully sued the state for damages arising from alleged torture while he was in detention.

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