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PRETORIA, South Africa –  A South African judge on Tuesday ordered prosecutors to investigate whether Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s government committed human rights abuses against his rivals ahead of 2008 elections, a ruling that has grave political and practical implications.

An investigation would likely be lengthy and costly. It could also complicate South Africa’s role as the main mediator in Zimbabwe’s political crisis.

The ruling handed down in a Pretoria court Tuesday by Judge Hans Fabricius was the first under 2002 South African statutes spelling out its international law obligations. Human rights lawyer Nicole Fritz, whose South African Litigation Centre joined the Zimbabwean Exiles forum to bring the suit, said human rights groups have documented cases of torture and other crimes in Zimbabwe. Under Tuesday’s order, she said, investigators from a country with a strong legal framework now will be able to hold Zimbabwean officials responsible for crimes allegedly committed during that country’s political meltdown.

“These crimes of the worst type are the responsibility of all the international community,” Fritz said. She said South Africa had a particular interest in neighboring Zimbabwe because refugees from the political violence and economic chaos there have come to South Africa in the thousands.

Fritz said Zimbabwean officials implicated in abuses also come to South Africa on official and personal business.

Prosecution spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said Tuesday prosecutors will study the ruling and then decide what legal steps to take next. South African prosecutors and police had said such investigations are beyond their mandate.

Since violent and disputed elections in 2008, Zimbabwe has been governed by a shaky coalition of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, and his ZANU-PF party are accused of using violence and intimidation to hold onto power.

South Africa has led regional efforts to get Zimbabwe’s political rivals to draft a new constitution and take other steps to ensure the next elections are peaceful. The 88-year-old Mugabe is pushing for elections this year, though few observers think a vote this year could be free or fair. Mugabe has been nominated as his party’s sole presidential candidate.

The rights activists had in 2008 asked South African police and prosecutors to investigate events in 2007, when police stormed MDC offices in Zimbabwe’s capital and arrested Tsvangirai, who had been preparing to address a news conference about political violence.

The activists had presented South African authorities with statements in which those taken away that day described being tortured by Zimbabwean police because they were members of the MDC and opponents of ZANU-PF. The activists described the assaults as part of a widespread campaign of violence against the MDC.

South African police and prosecutors refused to investigate, citing the difficulty of the task and possible political repercussions and saying the law was unclear on their responsibilities.

In his ruling, Fabricius said that refusal was “unlawful, inconsistent with the constitution, and therefore invalid.”

The judge added that an investigation is in the interests of “the victims of the torture who had been denied the opportunity to see justice done, and the general South African public who deserve to be served by a public administration that abides by its national and international obligations.”


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