The ruling by the Southern African Development Community tribunal (SADC) in Windhoek, Namibia, came amid growing impatience in South Africa and elsewhere in the region with Zimbabwe’s deepening political and economic crisis.
"The applicants have been discriminated against on the grounds of race," the tribunal said in ruling in favour of more than 75 white Zimbabwean farmers who challenged the legality of a controversial land redistribution programme begun in 2000.
"The (Zimbabwe) government is directed to take all necessary measures through its agents to protect the possession, occupation and ownership of the land by the applicants."
The tribunal also ordered that a handful of farmers whose land had already been confiscated should be compensated by June 30, 2009.
The court’s ruling will likely embarrass President Robert Mugabe’s government but will almost certainly not divert Harare from its current plan to carry with its land reform programme.
Mugabe’s government has seized thousands of white-owned farms and redistributed the land to poor blacks. The move has led to the collapse of the country’s once prosperous agricultural sector, pushing millions to the edge of famine.
Zimbabwean officials were not immediately available for comment on the ruling. Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, has previously said that no court will force him to reverse the land redistribution policy.
SADC, a regional grouping of 15 African nations that includes Zimbabwe, has been pressuring Mugabe and the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change to move quickly to form a unity government under a Sept. 15 power-sharing deal.
The two sides, however, have reached a deadlock over the control of key ministries in a future cabinet.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who defeated Mugabe in the first round of a March presidential election and then boycotted a second round won by Mugabe three months later, has accused the Zimbabwean ruler of trying to make the MDC a junior partner.
South African President Kgalema Motlanthe and African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma, the frontrunner to become South Africa’s president next year, have urged Mugabe and Tsvangirai to compromise for the sake of the Zimbabwean people.
Zimbabwe is suffering from an official inflation rate of 231 million percent and chronic shortages of food and fuel. An estimated three million of its people have fled to neighbouring South Africa. Reuters