Zimbabwe torture case must be investigated

South African High Court rules that SA authorities must investigate Zimbabwean officials accused of involvement in crimes against humanity and sets a hugely important precedent for intenational justice

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

May 7th, 2012

In a landmark decision for local and international justice, the North Gauteng High Court ruled this morning that the South African authorities must investigate Zimbabwean officials, who are accused of involvement in torture and crimes against humanity in Zimbabwe.

“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,” said Nicole Fritz, Executive Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which brought the case along with the Zimbabwean Exiles Forum (ZEF).

In a very strong ruling, Judge Hans Fabricius said that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the South African Police Services (SAPS) had acted unconstitutionally and unlawfully in not taking forward the original investigation. His judgment also underlined in the strongest terms South Africa’s obligations under international law.

“This decision is not just about Zimbabwe, it also sets a much broader precedent by ruling that South African authorities have a duty to investigate international crimes wherever they take place,” said Fritz. “It is a major step forward for international criminal justice.”

In March 2012, SALC and ZEF argued in the High Court that the decision of the NPA and SAPS not to investigate Zimbabwean officials linked to acts of state-sanctioned torture should be set aside. Brought in terms of South Africa’s International Criminal Court Act, which defines torture as a crime against humanity, the applicants' argued that the NPA and SAPS had failed to take into account South Africa’s international and domestic law obligations to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of international crimes regardless of where they are committed or by whom.

The case highlighted South Africa’s duty to investigate crimes against humanity, the sufficiency of the evidence presented by SALC to the NPA and SAPS to trigger an investigation and how irrelevant considerations – such as political concerns – improperly influenced the decision. The case also exposed divisions within the NPA after Anton Ackermann, the head of the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit that is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of international crimes, stated in an affidavit that he believed that an investigation should have been initiated and that he was not satisfied with the manner in which SALC’s request was dealt with.

SALC promotes human rights and the rule of law in southern Africa through litigation, advocacy and training. ZEF seeks to combat impunity and achieve justice for human rights violations in Zimbabwe and to support Zimbabweans in exile. Lawyers for Human Rights represented SALC and ZEF in this matter. 

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