PRETORIA, South Africa — South Africa should investigate whether officials in neighboring Zimbabwe are responsible for human rights abuses there, a judge said Tuesday in an order that has grave political and practical implications.
The ruling handed down in a Pretoria court Tuesday by Judge Hans Fabricius was the first under 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. But she said South Africa had a particular interest in 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 he could not immediately comment Tuesday. South African prosecutors had said such investigations are beyond their mandate.
An investigation would likely be lengthy and costly. It could also complicate South Africa role as the main mediator in Zimbabwe’s political crisis.
Since violent and disputed elections in 2008, Zimbabwe has been governed by a shaky coalition of President Robert 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.