A TRAVESTY of justice appears to be unfolding in Zimbabwe. For 13 months the government of President Robert Mugabe had detained six white air force officers accused of complicity with South Africa in a major sabotage incident last year. A black Zimbabwean judge finally acquitted them, ruling that the prisoners' confessions--the main evidence cited--had been obtained through torture and intimidation and that they had wrongly been denied access to their lawyers. True to his word--he had let it be known he did not believe the prisoners should be freed on "technicalities"--Mr. Mugabe had them rearrested within minutes. His government invoked the very emergency legislation used against blacks by the old white minority regime.

The incident is but one in a series that has cast a cloud over the optimistic expectations that many of Zimbabwe's foreign friends had entertained for it. Mr. Mugabe has come under intense criticism for atrocities that his armed forces have allegedly committed against civilians in tribal areas faithful to opposition leader Joshua Nkomo. Mr. Nkomo's own political status, now that he has returned from a frightened flight into exile, is uncertain. Mr. Mugabe has made no bones of his intention to replace Zimbabwe's multiparty democracy and mixed economy with a one-party socialist state. 2 To be sure, it would be misleading and unfair to see the affair of the officers strictly in the context of internal political developments. Zimbabwe is the very vulnerable target of a brutal destabilization campaign--economic pressure, political subversion, sabotage--being carried out by South Africa. Zimbabwe has been careful to avoid provoking Pretoria by harboring guerrillas. Its offense, in South African eyes, seems to lie simply in standing up boldly against apartheid and in offering a next-door example of multiracialism. Unquestionably, Zimbabwe cannot ignore South Africa's ugly contributions to its troubles.

Zimbabwe does not lighten its burden, however, when it responds in ways that erode trust among its constituent races and tribes and that lead its demonstrated foreign friends, including the United States, to question the basis on which they offer their support. Mr. Mugabe has his own complaints about American policy for having the effect, in his view, of encouraging South Africa "to become more aggressive." He is due to come to Washington later this month to discuss this and other issues. It would improve the prospects of his visit if he found a way, first, to return the case of the six officers to Zimbabwe's courts.