Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's trip to the United States this week - his first as Zimbabwe's leader - is expected to focus attention on his government's human rights record.
The third year of Zimbabwe's history as an independent nation has been a violent one, and the Fifth Brigade of Mr. Mugabe's army has been accused of killing hundreds of residents of western Matabeleland in its effort to root out guerrillas from that region. Matabeleland is home base to Mugabe's chief political rival, Joshua Nkomo.
Mugabe's government also has come under international criticism for ignoring court verdicts. The latest case in what may be a developing pattern of ignoring legal decisions was the government's redetention last week of six white Air Force officers who had been acquitted of involvement in sabotage against an air base.
US diplomats are believed to have been assured by Mugabe that justice would be done, implying that the Air Force officers would be released and allowed to leave Zimbabwe. And soon after that, two of the officers were released from jail and deported. But the prime minister is believed to think that Western pressure is relatively weak - since the West did not take a firm stand on an earlier case in which the government ignored a court decision. The earlier case involved the government's redetention of some former Nkomo supporters after they had been found not guilty on charges of treason.
Prime Minister Mugabe is scheduled to meet with President Reagan today. Zimbabweans do not expect President Reagan or administration officials to take Mugabe to task, however, because the US has been keen to have Zimbabwe demonstrate that independent black states can succeed economically. Strident criticism of Zimbabwe, they say, might endanger cooperation toward that goal.
The US is the main source of economic aid to Zimbabwe, having pledged some $ 225 million toward development programs for 1982 to 1984.
The greatest danger in criticism of Zimbabwe's rights record, some analysts say, is that such statements will weaken moderates in the government and benefit the hard-liners. The latter already appear to be strengthening their hold on the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, especially at the middle and lower echelons of public service.
Home Affairs Minister Herbert Ushewokunze has denounced the court's decision on the case of the white Air Force officers. Such pronouncement has come to be expected from him when the courts acquit defendants.
He complains that under the former white government of Ian Smith, the courts generally upheld the police and prosecution, whereas today judges generally support the cases of defense lawyers. He argues that what matters is the actual evidence given to the court and not the way in which it was obtained - rejecting the black judge's argument that confessions obtained under torture are ''inadmissible'' as evidence.
The prime minister's decision to visit the US came as something of a surprise to some observers. They say it suggests Mugabe believes either that the West does not harbor strong feelings about the redetentions or that he himself could not afford to be seen to be bowing to foreign pressure. The prime minister is also scheduled to visit Canada and Ireland.
Mugabe is expected to focus his remarks on his tour on economic issues and South Africa - and more specifically on discussions toward a settlement of the dispute over Namibian independence. But Zimbabwe Finance Minister Bernard Chidzero is accompanying Mugabe, and he is believed to be eager to discuss investment opportunities with US business leaders.
The Zimbabwe government believes that it is not getting a square deal from the Western news media, and the delegation will be trying hard to correct what it sees as the biased and inaccurate image that has been created by the newspapers and TV networks.
It seems that the US will also be engaged in an educational exercise - one designed to convey to Mugabe and his advisers concern not just over human rights but also over Zimbabwe's voting record in the Security Council.
If the two-way educational process is a success, then a road may be paved for closer relations, but there is also the danger that the Zimbabwe delegation will react negatively to what it construes as unjustified interference in and criticism of its domestic policies.