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Africa court refers Zimbabwe land reform case to regional summit meeting

The Tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) [official websites] ruled Friday that the farmers who lost their land under Zimbabwe's land reform program [PBS backgrounder; JURIST news archive] may take their case to the SADC summit meeting next month. The ruling, which also reaffirms a previous ruling finding the land reform program to be racially motivated [JURIST report], discriminatory and contrary to the SADC treaty [text, DOC], marks the third time that the Tribunal has referred Zimbabwe to the SADC summit meeting for non-compliance with court orders, continued human rights abuses and violation of the SADC treaty. The summit has yet to act in any of these instances. In bringing the case to the Tribunal, the farmers urged SADC to suspend Zimbabwe [AFP report] from its membership until it either halted the seizures or compensated the farmers, as previously ordered by the Tribunal. The farmers have alleged that they face ongoing violence and harassment by government forces that seek to evict them from their farmland. After the ruling, the farmers' lawyer described Zimbabwe as a rogue state [Reuters report] that disregards human rights. The farmers' lawyer also asserted that if SADC does not take action against Zimbabwe this year, the organization's legitimacy will be greatly undermined. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe [PBS profile; JURIST news archive] has defended the law, calling it necessary to correct historical racial disparities resulting from the country's history as a British colony.Those familiar with the regional organization have expressed skepticism at the prospect of SADC taking action against Zimbabwe this year.

In January, the Zimbabwe High Court [GlobaLex backgrounder] ruled that it is not bound [JURIST report] by the Tribunal's decision ordering the state to halt its land reforms, refusing to register it. Justice Bharat Patel stated that enforcing the ruling, which was in favor of white farmers whose land was taken over in the government's farm redistribution program [JURIST report], would violate the Zimbabwean Constitution [text, PDF] and would be against public policy. Patel believed that a decision in favor the SADC ruling would lead to the removal of the majority of the people that the government was trying to support through the redistribution program. The High Court had previously ruled that the Tribunal is not superior [JURIST report] to the courts of the individual SADC member countries. In December 2008, four white Zimbabwe farmers were charged with trespassing [JURIST report] on state property for failing to vacate lands that the government seized for the land reform program, in open defiance of the November 2008 Tribunal ruling. One of the farmers, Colin Cloete, filed suit to cause the government and attorney general to register the SADC ruling in the High Court Registry, a step necessary to enable its enforcement in the country.

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