updated 7/17/2008 7:14:42 PM ET 2008-07-17T23:14:42

White farmers asked a regional court Thursday to hold the Zimbabwean government in contempt, saying government supporters were beating and harassing plaintiffs in a suit challenging Zimbabwe's farm evictions.

Lawyers for Zimbabwe's government walked out of the hearing in response to the contempt request.

The lawsuit filed with the Southern African Development Community's tribunal by 78 white farmers asks that Zimbabwe's farm eviction laws be overturned. The chaotic and often violent land reform program launched in 2000 forced many white commercial farmers from prime farming land.

Critics say the program helped turn the country from a regional breadbasket into a begging bowl. But the government says it was meant to benefit the country's black majority.

The 10-person tribunal, based in Namibia, opened hearings in the case Wednesday. It had ordered Zimbabwe in December not to expropriate farms belonging to the applicants pending the outcome.

But farmers' lawyer Jeremy Gauntlett argued Thursday the order was broken when ruling party militants attacked three of the farmers who filed the suit.

He asked the court to refer the issue of contempt of court to a regional summit in August in South Africa.

The court did not immediately rule on the contempt request or set a date for a ruling on the larger issues in the case. The tribunal hears legal appeals from citizens of the regional bloc's 14 members nations.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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