An unprecedented investigation by South African authorities into an alleged campaign of politically motivated mass rape in Zimbabwe has given hope that justice will finally be served four years on, and that more sexual assaults can be prevented as a new election approaches, human rights advocates say.
The South African investigation is under way into some 200 men allegedly linked to President Robert Mugabe's party, who are suspected in widespread rape throughout Zimbabwe during the tumultuous 2008 election period.
The cross-border probe marks the first time that rape is solely being scrutinised as a crime against humanity under a legal term known as "universal jurisdiction". The principle allows and obliges nations under international law to investigate and prosecute citizens from other countries, if the crimes are considered particularly heinous.
The police probe follows years of investigative work by international NGO AIDS-Free World and other organisations. AIDS-Free World interviewed 84 Zimbabwean women who swore in affidavits that they were raped by men - many times gangs of them - associated with Mugabe's Zanu-PF party during 2008 in an alleged strategy to influence the election.
"The message we're sending to Mugabe's regime is: 'You cannot get away with rape as a strategy for reelection.'"
- Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy
All 84 women interviewed were members of the current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, or its supporters. The evidence given to South African authorities contains the names of more than 200 alleged perpetrators linked to Zanu-PF, as well as testimony from doctors, eyewitnesses, and civil society organisations.
With Zimbabwe's general elections expected this year and Saturday's referendum on a new constitution, fears of new political violence are growing.
Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, is a co-founder of AIDS-Free World. He told Al Jazeera that "contacts" within Zimbabwe are reporting that gang-rape "base camps" - similar to those established in 2008 - are now being reconstituted with elections on the horizon.
"That's why it's important that this story is told," Lewis said. "The message we're sending to Mugabe's regime is: 'You cannot get away with rape as a strategy for re-election.'"
Al Jazeera could not independently verify that gang-rape "base camps" were being set up.
Women's testimonies contained in a 2009 report by AIDS-Free World - titled "Electing to Rape: Sexual Terror in Mugabe's Zimbabwe" - narrated a grim story throughout its harrowing 65 pages.
No one knows exactly how many women were raped in 2008, but estimates range from "hundreds and possibly thousands", the report said.
Many said they were abducted and taken to camps where they were gang-raped, sometimes for days, by men who wore Zanu-PF caps and T-shirts, who chanted party songs and slogans, and who denounced Tsvangirai's MDC.
Some women said they were often raped in front of husbands, children, and other family members.
"The women - who were in every instance utterly devastated, some of them destroyed physically, psychologically, emotionally - they said to us, 'What we want more than anything else in the world is justice," said Lewis.
Four years later, that search for justice is now moving forward in neighbouring South Africa.
Lewis, also the former Canadian ambassador to the UN, said the South African Police Service (SAPS) has opened an "investigation docket", and two detectives have been assigned. The officers will start with one rape case and go from there.
"This matter is in our hands and we are looking into it," said SAPS spokesman Paul Ramaloko.
|Zimbabwe Defense Forces patrol in Harare in August 2012 [EPA]
Lewis predicted an investigation would lead up the chain of command to the "most senior level at the Zanu-PF".
"It's difficult to believe - considering the mass scale of rape across the country - that the senior echelon of Zanu-PF didn't know what was taking place. Someone had to dispatch the rapists," Lewis said.
But Patrick Chinamasa, Zimbabwe's justice and legal affairs minister and a senior Zanu-PF member, denied the allegations in a phone call with Al Jazeera, saying they were made for "propaganda purposes".
"I have no knowledge of rape crimes committed in 2008," he said.
He also denounced South Africa for launching the cross-border investigation. "South Africa has no jurisdiction whatsoever to investigate allegations of rape in Zimbabwe," the minister said. "We are not a province of South Africa".
Another Zanu-PF official, Jonathan Moya, told The Zimbabwe Mail that South Africa’s own human rights record puts into question its transnational investigation.
Moyo highlighted the massacre of 34 strikers at the Marikana mine last August by South African police, and the recent death of a taxi driver who was tied by uniformed officers to a van and dragged behind the vehicle.
"Who in their right mind really believes that a rogue police force like the SAP can have the moral or legal authority or legitimacy to investigate any alleged crime against humanity [in Zimbabwe]?" said Moyo.
Activists say regardless of who is investigating, the most important thing is that a probe is underway.
Zimbabwe has not ratified the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and therefore the ICC cannot investigate the mass rape allegations.
However, South Africa has ratified the statute, and incorporated it into domestic law. That move not only allows but obligates South Africa to prosecute grave, cross-border crimes under the legal concept of universal jurisdiction.
Francois Larocque, a professor of international law at Canada's University of Ottawa, told Al Jazeera rape has never before been exclusively investigated in the context of universal jurisdiction.
Larocque - who assisted AIDS-Free World with its legal research - said other examples of universal jurisdiction used to prosecute international crimes include the trials of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Israel in the 1960s, Adolfo Scilingo from Argentina in 2005 in Spain, and Rwandan Desire Munyaneza in Canada in 2009.
Countries that sign the Rome Statute - a binding international treaty - must investigate heinous crimes such as those allegedly committed in Zimbabwe, Larocque said.
"The primary jurisdiction to investigate, try and punish genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity lies with the signatory states," said Larocque. "It is their legal obligation to do so."
Karima Bennoune, professor of Law at University of California at Davis, applauded the move by South Africa to investigate, but said the struggle for justice was far from finished. For one thing, the alleged Zimbabwean perpetrators would have to cross onto South African soil before they could be apprehended and tried, she noted.
"The application of universal jurisdiction often happens at the intersection of law and politics," Bennoune said in an email. "The evidence will have to be found to build a case, and then the political will has to be mustered to go forward as well."
'World is watching'
Back in 2008, Mugabe's Zanu-PF was initially defeated by Tsvangirai's MDC, but without a sufficient majority to remove the 89-year-old strongman from power. The Election Commission called an election run-off and violence erupted. More than 200 people were killed and an estimated 200,000 displaced, according to local rights groups.
After the run-off race was announced, MDC supporters said incidents of rape and torture intensified. Tsvangirai, meanwhile, withdrew from the race citing the violence.
AIDS-Free World launched its probe after a Harare-based organisation reported it was receiving a flood of rape reports. With the help of Zimbabwe-based groups, dozens of women were secretly moved out of the country to neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, where more than 300 hours of testimony was given and recorded.
Nine attorneys from the international law firm New Perimeter-DLA Piper agreed to work pro bono on the investigation, travelling six times to southern Africa to get the sworn affidavits alleging politically motivated rape.
Attorney Kristen Leanderson Abrams told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC the experience had changed her.
"It was unlike anything I've ever heard. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into terms of knowing what is going on around the world. But sitting two feet away from these women - you can't help but be changed as a person when you hear these horrifying stories," Abrams said.
"One hopes that this will be part of a new robust regional response to sexual violence ... The investigation puts Mugabe and Zanu-PF on notice that the world is watching."
- Karima Bennoune, law professor
Bennoune, the law professor, said South Africa's investigation "sends a strong message that can help to stop the scourge of politically motivated rape", and could create a "justice cascade" around the world.
She said there is a lot of excitement transnationally among women's rights defenders about the investigation.
"One hopes that this will be part of a new robust regional response to sexual violence," Bennoune said. "The investigation puts Mugabe and Zanu-PF on notice that the world is watching what happens in the lead up to the upcoming March 16 referendum, and the July general elections."