South Africa asked to investigate Zim officials on crimes against humanity

The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Zimbabwean Exiles Forum (ZEF) have launched a landmark case in the North Gauteng High Court to compel South Africa to abide by its legal obligations to investigate and prosecute high level Zimbabwean officials accused of crimes against humanity.

SALC and ZEF are asking the High Court to review and set aside the decision of the National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Police Services not to investigate Zimbabwean officials linked to acts of state-sanctioned torture following a police raid on the headquarters of the Movement for Democratic Change in 2007.

“The decision not to pursue credible evidence of crimes against humanity was taken for political reasons, it ignored South Africa’s clear obligations under both international and domestic law,” said Nicole Fritz, Executive Director of SALC.

“The High Court has an opportunity to set an important precedent, which will ensure that South Africa lives up to its legal responsibilities to prosecute the perpetrators of international crimes.”

By ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, South Africa committed itself to prosecute perpetrators of serious international crimes, regardless of where they are committed.

However, this case represents the first time that a South African court will have the opportunity to provide guidance on the scope and nature of the obligations placed on South African authorities by signing up to the ICC.

This case has its genesis in a detailed docket submitted by SALC to the NPA’s Priority Crimes Litigation Unit in March 2008 documenting acts of torture committed after the Zimbabwean police raid on MDC’s Harvest House. Torture is a crime against humanity, according to the ICC.

“As soon as the NPA was in possession of the docket, South Africa’s obligations to investigate with a view to prosecuting those responsible were triggered,” said Gabriel Shumba, Chairperson of ZEF. “Since the ICC Act obliges South Africa to arrest and prosecute perpetrators of international crimes if they enter South Africa, the Zimbabwean officials identified in the docket should have been arrested when they set foot in South Africa or at the very least questioned.”

Despite the existence of specialised units within South Africa’s prosecutorial and police services to investigate crimes of this nature, no effort was made to initiate an investigation despite the availability of credible evidence. A negative decision was only communicated to SALC in June 2009 and the reasons given demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of South Africa’s international law obligations and the ICC Act.

“Continued impunity in Zimbabwe does not bode well for constitutional reform and the possibility of free and fair elections,” said Fritz.

“South Africa has the legal framework, and the technical capacity and expertise to dispense international justice. Moreover, South Africa cannot afford to be seen as a refuge for international criminals the world over. It is in its own best interests to ensure that these types of criminals are brought to book.”

The case will be heard between 26 March and 30 March 2012.

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