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SA court upholds landmark order to probe Zim crimes against humanity

SA court upholds landmark order to probe Zim crimes against humanity

via SA court upholds landmark order to probe Zim crimes against humanity | SW Radio Africa by Alex Bell  November 27, 2013

The Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa on Wednesday upheld a landmark legal order, compelling the prosecuting authorities in that country to investigate crimes against humanity perpetrated in Zimbabwe.

Last year the North Gauteng High Court ruled that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in South Africa and the country’s police must investigate state-sanctioned torture and other crimes against humanity committed by Zimbabwean officials in 2007. The Court said that the authorities had a duty to probe allegations of torture as required by the Rome Statute, which South Africa is a signatory to.

The Statute is the foundation for the International Criminal Court and as a signatory, South Africa is committed to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of serious international crimes.

But earlier this month the NPA and the police approached the Supreme Court of Appeal in an effort to have the court order overturned. The authorities argued that that the international laws which the North Gauteng High Court based its original ruling on had been ‘misinterpreted’. The SA government had also previously argued that undertaking such investigations would interfere with its political mediation efforts in Zimbabwe.

The ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal was delivered on Wednesday, with the full bench of five judges upholding the original, landmark order, passed down by the lower court. Described as a “landmark decision for local and international justice,” the ruling made it clear that the perpetrators of the crimes in Zimbabwe can be held accountable in South Africa regardless of where the offending acts took place. The Court noted that such crimes strike “at the whole of humankind and impinge on the international conscience.”

The case was led by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF) and was based on a dossier detailing a politically motivated attack on MDC members in Zimbabwe in 2007. This dossier was handed to the NPA in 2008 but the prosecuting body and the police decided not to take the case further.

ZEF Director Gabriel Shumba told SW Radio Africa on Wednesday that the Supreme Court of Appeal’s ruling is “a huge victory for the international struggle against impunity.”

“This order really seeks to narrow the divide between those in power and normal citizens, so that those in power cannot willy-nilly abuse its citizens,” Shumba said.

The court’s decision is being welcomed by other human rights and justice activists in Southern Africa, because of the precedent it sets for the rule of law. According to SALC Deputy Director Priti Patel the ruling “confirms that the dispensing of international justice is not restricted to international forums, and commits the South African authorities to play their part in ensuring that torturers and other international criminals are held accountable for their actions.”

The Lawyers for Human Rights group in South Africa, which represented SALC and the ZEF, also welcomed the ruling as fundamental.

“The Court specifically stated that this is one of the first cases before South African courts dealing with jurisdiction for international crimes. We anticipate that this will be the first in a long line of cases developing this area of the law,” the lawyers group said.

Former Chegutu farmer turned activist, Ben Freeth, meanwhile also applauded the Supreme Court of Appeal’s decision, saying “crimes against humanity have continued for far too long in Zimbabwe.”

“This opens up the road to pursue international criminal law – and slowly will begin to be part of closing down the culture of impunity through which the dictatorship is able to continue to destroy the lives of so many – and block the future for the next generation,” Freeth said.

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