South African Court Orders Authorities to Investigate Zimbabwean Officials
May 23, 2012
By: Garrett Nada | Printer Friendly
On May 8, South Africa’s North Gauteng High Court issued a historic ruling for authorities to investigate alleged torture by 18 high-ranking Zimbabwean officials. This is the first time that a South African court has attempted to implement the Criminal Court Act of 2002. The progressive legislation requires South African authorities to investigate evidence of crimes against humanity in areas where rule of law is absent, even if South Africans are not involved at all. According to the court, Zimbabwe qualifies as one such place.
The ruling marks the end of a long process that began in March 2008, when two Johannesburg-based-NGOs (the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum) requested an investigation of Zimbabwean officials for alleged complicity in the torture of 17 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in March 2007. Initially the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and South African police declined, claiming that an investigation would be impossible without the full cooperation of the Zimbabwean authorities. There were also political considerations. The authorities feared jeopardizing the already tense bilateral relationship with Zimbabwe. Judge Hans Fabricius dismissed the reasons provided for not pursuing the case. He added that South Africa is bound by its own International Criminal Act its international legal responsibilities under the 1998 Rome Statute to investigate the officials associated with acts of torture and other human rights abuses. Nicole Fritz, executive director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, considers the ruling a victory. He told Reuters: “This judgment will send a shiver down the spines of Zimbabwean officials who believed that they would never be held to account for their crimes but now face investigation by the South African authorities.”
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and several high ranking members of his government already face international sanctions for suspected human rights abuses. Their assets are frozen in the European Union and the United States and they are banned from traveling to many Western countries, unless they travel under diplomatic immunity. The South African prosecutors cannot try the Zimbabwean officials in absentia but it could become difficult for the officials to visit South Africa, as they could face criminal prosecution.
Peter Godwin, in an op-ed for the New York Times, believes the most immediate effect of the court ruling could be a change in behavior of Mugabe’s forces in the run-up to the elections, due to take place sometime next year. Godwin hopes that Zimbabweans will think twice before repeating the horrific acts surrounding the 2008 elections, which included the killing of hundreds of opposition supporters and the torturing of thousands. According to Godwin, “the South African authorities want to sidestep it and are reportedly preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which oversees the High Courts.” Therefore he is encouraging the international community, South African media and the Cosatu trade union to pressure the South African authorities to not appeal the verdict.
On May 22, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, met with Zimbabwe’s justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa. In response to the South African court ruling, Chinamasa said that “there is no state-sponsored violence, these are all lies.” He added: “We need to investigate some of these [torture] report s so that we find out if the person was involved in a personal accident, as they can claim that they are torture wounds.”
Daily News - Using good judgment
The New York Times - A Landmark Ruling in South Africa
Reuters - South African courts to hear Zimbabwe rights cases
Business Day - SA ordered to probe Zim officials accused of torture
ANGOP - Zimbabwe dismisses torture claims as 'lies'