Manpower Minister Edgar Tekere went on trial today for the murder of a white farmer and the case, which could have far-reaching impact on the future of newly independent Zimbabwe, immediately turned into a trial within a trial.
Judge John Pittman ruled against Tekere and his seven black codefendents on an argument that the court has no jurisdiction in the case because of a controversial 1975 white-written antiterrorism law still on the books despite the advent of black-majority rule six months ago.
His ruling was immediately taken to the appeals court. After 90 minutes of argument there, Chief Justice Charles Fieldsend said the three-judge panel would issue an opinion tomorrow.
The issue is crucial for the trial of Tekere, the number three official in Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's ruling party. A decision in his favor on the jurisdictional question would mean that he and his seven bodyguards would be freed without having to enter a plea.
The importance of the case, however, extends well beyond Tekere, 43, who is free on bail. The 200,000 white-minority community and potential Western investors are watching to see if law and order prevail in the newly independent southern African nation when a senior government officials is accused of murder.
Tekere is the leader of the radical wing of Mugabe's party. That wing seeks more rapid improvements for blacks and removal of white bastions of power. There is speculation that some of the recent surge of violence in the country is linked to Tekere since he has strong ties with the former guerrillas involved in many of the incidents.
At the center of today's debate is a 1975 blanket law passed by the former all-white government of prime minister Ian Smith that exempted high government officials, their aides and security forces from prosecution for antiterrorist acts.
The law was frequently criticized by Smith's opponents because of its all-encompassing nature. It rules out criminal proceedings against such persons for "any act, matter or thing whatsoever advised, commanded, ordered, directed or done . . . in good faith for the purposes of or in connection with the suppression of terrorism."
British attorney Louis Blom-Cooper, head of Tekere's defense team, is seeking to have the case thrown out on grounds that the minister and his bodyguards were involved in an antiterrorist operation when they killed William Adams on a farm 20 miles west of Salisbury in August. He maintains that the jurisdictional issue must be treated before the defendants make their pleas.
This means "all the court has got to look at is the motive of the accused," Blom-Cooper told the appeals court. "It mustn't look at the consequences of the act that was done" -- a much easier line of defense for Tekere.
In effect, Tekere is trying to turn to his advantage the system of white justice of the Smith regime that he fought for 15 years.
Judge Pittman ruled against the jurisdictional argument although he said the matter could be used as part of Tekere's defense. The judge agreed, however, after conferring in chambers with the prosecution and defense, to submit the question to the appeals court.