The High Court today acquitted Manpower Minister Degar Tekere and seven bodyguards of murdering a white farm manager.
The court's split decision was based on a law passed by the former white minority government to protect its officials from crimianal prosecution for actions intended to suppress terrorism.
The trial of Tekere, a former guerrilla leader and a high-ranking member of the government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, was considered by many whites to be a test of the treatment of whites in the country under the newly independent black majority government.
The three-man panel split along racial lines in applying the antiterrorism law, which has since been repealed, to the case.
Judge John Pittman, a white, found Tekere and one of his bodyguards guilty of killing 65-year-old Gerald Adams in an attack on his farm outside Salisbury Aug. 4 and dismissed as inapplicable the defense argument that they had done so in the belief they were stopping an act of terrorism by Adams.
But two black assessors -- lower court officials who under this country's legal system take the place of a jury and whose findings on matters of fact carry equal weight with the judge's -- ruled that the two defendants had fulfilled the law's requirement of "good faith" in their belief that they were suppressing terrorism and thus were exempt from prosecution for Adam's slaying.
Some observers said the verdict will quicken the exodus of whites, which has been running at 1,500 to 2,000 people a month since independence last April.
For Mugabe, the verdict relieves him of a potentially touchy political dilemma that might have arisen from the incarceration of Tekere, whose radical views make him popular among many young blacks. If Tekere had been convicted, his supporters might have generated pressure on Mugabe to grant a presidential pardon and made him vulnerable to charges of interfering with the country's judicial system.
Mugabe has won respect from many people for letting justice take its course in the case, accepting that the outcome might have gone against his minister. "It was a fair trial," said one white lawyer knowledgeable about the case.
Mugabe, in a statement tonight, said, "The public can have confidence that in the future, as in the present case, government will not interfere with the judicial exercise of their function by the courts."
For Tekere, the vindication paves the way for political revival as an outspoken minister whose frankly voiced desires for faster and more radical economic and political change could complicate Mugabe's attempts to steer a moderate course between white fears and black aspirations.
Tekere was unrepentant and cantankerous at a press conference after the verdict this morning, saying he was "disgusted" at the racial division on the bench. He accused Pittman of "equivocating" about a law "used to get rid of lots of our people during the war years."
"Suddenly it has become inconvenient," Tekere said. "We have a long way to go before we can achieve justice as long as we have men like those on the bench."
Some whites here expreseed a mixture of resignation, cynicism and bitterness about the verdict. For them, Tekere is a man they fear and call the "minister of hate" because of his radical views that are often laden with anti-white overtones.
"What can you expect, it was a foregone conclusion," said one white who immigrated here from Britain 20 years ago and said he cannot leave because he cannot take out any money. "It's a license to kill."
"This is going to have a serious effect on morale generally," commented former white prime minister Ian Smith, "mainly among white people but I think many black people as well. If you can arbitrarily murder a person for no rhyme or reason and be acquitted, then it is a sad reflection on the future of our country."
A white lawyer unconnected with the trial called the outcome "poetic justice" in that law that has given Tekere his freedom was brought in in 1975 by Smith's all white government to protect government officials for their actions during the war.
The three judges agreed that the six other defendants were not guilty of the charge of attempted murder stemming from an incident related to Adams' killing because they were acting on orders from their military commander, Tekere.
The high-ceilinged, wood-paneled courtroom was packed with supporters of the defendants, including Tekere's parents, who all welcomed the verdict with loud applause and cheers. Tekere appeared relieved and his wife, Rovimbo, wept openly.
Outside the court, which had condemned many blacks to death by hanging for terrorism during the seven-year guerrilla war against the former white minority government, a crowd of about 200 jubilant supporters mobbed the controversial minister, shouting their approval and raising their fists in black power salutes. From open office windows above the court, poker-faced white civil servants glared down on the scene.
Tekere later said he and his codefendants "were at a loss to understand what it is that we had done wrong."
He called Adams' death an "unfortunate incident . . . . You've got to understand me from my background. I've buried thousands during the war. Decomposed bodies, unidentified. So I don't understand why anybody should have been making a fuss about this after Adams behaved the way he did."
Defense lawyers argued in the trial that Tekere and his men went to Adams' farm while searching for five black soldiers suspected of planning to assassinate Tekere and that Adams was killed after he drew a pistol on the group.