Court orders S.Africa to probe Zimbabwe 'torture'
5/8/2012 6:00:04 PM -
PRETORIA (AFP) - A South African high court on Tuesday ordered that prosecutors in Pretoria investigate Zimbabwean officials accused of torturing opposition supporters five years ago.
The landmark judgement means that the authorities can probe and prosecute not only high-level crimes committed in neighbouring Zimbabwe, but anywhere else in the world.
The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum filed the case seeking to force prosecutors to open an investigation, citing South Africa's obligations to the International Criminal Court.
The two groups want South Africa to arrest and prosecute 17 Zimbabweans accused of torture in 2007 if they enter the country for holiday, shopping or seeking medical treatment.
South African prosecutors had refused to investigate the allegations, citing among other things political concerns. South Africa is the main regional mediator in the political crisis in Zimbabwe where a shaky power-sharing government has been in office since 2009.
"In my view it is clear when an investigation under the ICC Act is requested, and a reasonable basis exists for doing an investigation, political considerations or diplomatic initiatives are not relevant," Judge Hans Fabricius said.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe early this year threatened to reject South African leader Jacob Zuma as regional facilitator overseeing Harare's promised political reforms.
The judgement "is precedent setting in that... it makes it much more likely that those who have committed crimes such as genocide and other crimes against humanity, face prosecution if they enter South Africa," said Nicole Fritz, director of the SALC.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has not yet decided whether to appeal.
"NPA will study the judgement, scrutinise it and then determine what legal avenue to explore," NPA spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said.
The case centres on Zimbabwean officials accused of state-sanctioned torture against scores of activists following a raid on the headquarters of the Movement for Democratic Change in 2007.
The SALC argues that the torture was both widespread and systematic, amounting to a crime against humanity.
"If you look at the international trends and see how many people have been arrested, for example, over the Rwanda genocide, this judgement will send shivers across Zimbabwe" said Gabriel Shumba, a torture victim and leader of the Zimbabwean exiles in South Africa.
Alan Wallis, a lawyer with the International Criminal Justice project said: "It's really a groundbreaking judgement. Its sends the message that South Africa will not be a safe haven."
Zimbabwean authorities did not immediately react to the judgement.
Mugabe and dozens of his cronies in government and his ZANU-PF party are on EU and US travel bans, but are free to travel to South Africa.