SOUTH Africa should investigate Zimbabwean officials for alleged human rights abuses to stem the flood of economic and political refugees streaming across the Limpopo, a judge said Tuesday.
The ruling was handed down in a Pretoria court Tuesday by Judge Hans Fabricius and becomes the first under South African statutes spelling out the country’s international law obligations.
However the court's finding could pose grave political and practical implications for South Africa as President Jacob Zuma is leading a regional mediation effort in Zimbabwe aimed at facilitating free and fair elections.
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 decade-long 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.