White farmers defying eviction order arrested

Zimbabwe charges them with illegally occupying properties, union says

August 17, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - After a week of tough talk and stern warnings, the government of Zimbabwe has begun to crack down on the hundreds of white farmers who have defied an official eviction order that requires them to abandon their properties.

Over the past two days, more than a dozen white farmers have been arrested and charged with illegally occupying the land, leaders of the farmers' union say. Yesterday, five farmers appeared in court in the southwest town of Gwanda, where they were charged with ignoring the deadline for handing over the farms to landless blacks.

The farmers, who may face up to two years in jail if convicted, have condemned the arrests and the eviction orders as unconstitutional. But police officials dismissed that criticism yesterday and warned that more farmers would be arrested.

President Robert G. Mugabe has said he is determined to undo the legacy of British colonialism that left a tiny white minority in control of more than half of Zimbabwe's fertile land. About 3,000 white farmers were ordered to leave their property by midnight Aug. 8 to make way for new black farmers. Many white growers have packed their bags, but hundreds of others have openly defied the government's order.

"We should be seeing more arrests in [the] future," Wayne Bvudzijena, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe National Police, said yesterday in a telephone interview from Zimbabwe.

"It's not an issue of fair or unfair; this is the law," he said. "Those farmers should have left the farms. They were given more than 90 days to leave."

Bvudzijena said that about six farmers were arrested Thursday, but he could not confirm how many were arrested yesterday. Officials with the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents more than 3,500 white farmers, said that as many as 24 farmers total had been arrested by yesterday.

"The police are still looking for more farmers," said Max Crawford, president of the Commercial Farmers Union branch in the Matebeleland province and one of the five farmers who appeared in court yesterday.

Crawford, who was questioned by the police Thursday, said authorities were fanning out throughout the province yesterday and arresting farmers who were defying the eviction order. But he said he and many others intend to stay put.

"We're staying, and we'll continue farming," said Crawford, 49, who was allowed to leave court yesterday with other farmers after paying $90 bail. A court hearing was set for Sept. 6.

"I think they were hoping we would just quietly pack up our bags and leave," Crawford said. "But there's no way we can just walk away. Our constitutional rights are being violated."

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