London (CNSNews.com) - Zimbabwe's High Court Wednesday found a pro-government leader in contempt of court for overseeing the invasion of white-owned farms in the crisis-hit country.
The ruling comes as a further legal blow to President Robert Mugabe, his government and supporters involved in the land seizures, which have led to at least three deaths.
On Tuesday a white farmer was gunned down by a mob while trying to defend his farm. Earlier, another farmer was abducted and beaten to death, and a black policeman was killed while investigating assault complaints against squatters.
Opposition leaders voiced concern that Mugabe was ratcheting up tensions in order to declare a state of emergency as a pretext to cancel elections he fears his ruling party may lose.
The crisis has prompted the United States and other western countries to cut back on financial aid to the southern African nation.
The court ordered Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, a veteran of Zimbabwe's independence war, to prove by May 3 that he had taken active steps to end the invasion of hundreds of farms which he has been coordinating.
Some of those involved in the land grab are war veterans, although reports from Zimbabwe say others are not, with many too young to have fought during the 1970s.
It remains to be seen whether Hunzvi will obey the court order. The High Court ruled on March 17 that the occupations were illegal and should end, but Mugabe has continued to support them.
"How can I contradict the order of my president?" the veterans' leader asked reporters after the hearing in the capital, Harare.
Hunzvi then went directly to Mugabe's official residence, State House, for talks. Representatives of the farming community accompanied him, but said Mugabe told them to leave.
On Tuesday Mugabe exacerbated the fears of the beleaguered white community when he branded farmers "the enemies of Zimbabwe" during a speech to mark the country's 20th anniversary of independence.
Fearful of their safety, some farmers and their families have moved from their farms to stay with friends or relatives in the cities. Some abandoned farms have subsequently been torched by squatters.
Hundreds of whites Wednesday lined up at the British High Commission (embassy) to apply to regain citizenship. About one per cent of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people are white, mostly of British origin.
While Mugabe and his government insist the issue is about the fact most of the country's most productive land is owned by several thousand white farmers, his opponents say the crisis is clearly political.
Facing the strong possibility of defeat at the polls after 20 years in power, Mugabe is exploiting poor blacks' "land hunger" in an attempt to win back popular support, they say.
At least five members of a new opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change, have been killed by Mugabe supporters in recent weeks. Many more have been assaulted and some arrested, and meetings have been disrupted.
Many whites support the MDC which says it, too, backs a program of land reform, but only one that is carried out in an orderly and legal manner.
Britain has led international efforts to pressure Mugabe into abandoning his policies. Mugabe blames Britain for the land problem, saying the former colonial power had the historical responsibility to pay for land reforms needed to reverse colonial injustice.
At the request of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan phoned Mugabe Tuesday to urge him to defuse the tension.
Mugabe agreed to send a high-level delegation to talks in London on April 27, a move welcomed by Cook.
While British officials say they have to move carefully to avoid exacerbating the crisis, opposition Conservatives continue to berate the government for not doing enough.
"Mr. Cook claims that action against Mugabe will make him a 'martyr'," said the Conservative spokesman on foreign affairs, Francis Maude.
"I ask: how many more black democracy activists and white farmers need to be made martyrs before something is done to end the violence and terror in Zimbabwe?"
Maude called for the Commonwealth, a grouping of Britain and its former colonies, to send a high-level delegation "to try to persuade Mugabe to restore the rule of law and end illegal farm occupation."
The Commonwealth should also begin discussions on suspending Zimbabwe's membership, and investigate the possibility of locating and freezing "the international assets of Mugabe and his cronies."
Zimbabwe's African neighbors have generally been quiet about the growing lawlessness, although there are fears in South Africa that landless black peasants may be encouraged to take similar action there.
In an editorial, The Times of London pointed out that South Africa's continued provision of subsidized electricity and oil to Zimbabwe was keeping the country afloat, and argued that Pretoria should cut the supply.
"For South Africa's sake, [President Thabo Mbeki] should tell Mr. Mugabe that no more will be supplied on credit unless an early date for elections is announced and adhered to.
"In Zimbabwe's parlous economic state, Mr. Mugabe and, crucially, the army officers on whom he increasingly depends have no choice but to take such a message more seriously than, on past form, he will take criticism from political luminaries far off in London," it said.