Zimbabwe: a pattern of disregard for courts

The Zimbabwe government has again shown open disregard for the nation's judiciary, a move that is likely to worry the West and alarm the nation's dwindling white population.

The Harare High Court acquitted all six white Air Force officers charged by the state with involvement in an attack last year on the Thornhill air base. But shortly after the acquittal, the six men were detained under Zimbabwe's emergency powers legislation.

The Thornhill case is just one of a number of clashes between the executive branch of the government and the judiciary. A pattern appears to be developing in which the government ignores rulings of the courts in security cases and imprisons people regardless of court verdicts.

Civil rights advocates in the country are worried about this trend, as are some Western countries.

The British government was paying particularly close attention to the trial of the Air Force officers, since four of them hold dual Zimbabwe and British citizenship.

The Air Force officers were charged with helping South African intelligence men plot last year's raid on the air base, which grounded about a quarter of Zimbabwe's air force. The state's case was based on signed confessions, which the six later said were extracted through torture or mistreatment.

The judge did not find the confessions convincing, in part because the officers were consistently denied access to lawyers prior to signing the confessions.

The suspicion of many whites in Zimbabwe throughout the trial was that the government was using the white officers as convenient scapegoats for a very serious and politically embarrassing breach of security.

Some analysts predict that the government's detention of the officers will precipitate a rapid departure of whites from the Air Force.

The government's detention of persons found innocent in court is not exclusive to any one race group. Earlier this year, six members of the main black opposition party were acquitted of treason charges, then put in prison again.

The leader of the political opposition, Joshua Nkomo, has just returned to Zimbabwe after five months in exile. The security situation in western Matabeleland, his base of support, has stabilized. But the detention of the six Air Force officers suggests that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe may continue to impose his sweeping security powers.

In another similar security case, two members of Zimbabwe's secret service were acquitted on charges of spying for South Africa last year. But they were immediately detained and remain in custody.

Aside from a preoccupation with security, the Zimbabwe government has shown deep suspicion of the judiciary it inherited from the country's former white leaders. Dr. Herbert Ushewokunze, minister of home affairs, has said the courts simply are ''not in tune with the present government.''

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