Zimbabwe's justice minister has denounced a South African court ruling that would allow prosecutions related to alleged torture under President Robert Mugabe.
"The ruling brings the South African justice system into disrepute. No specifics have been identified, because they should have laid a blow by blow account of what crime has been committed," Patrick Chinamasa told state media on Wednesday.
The Tuesday ruling could affect Zimbabwean refugees, many of whom have fled to neighbouring South Africa, and government officials, who also sometimes come on business or personal trips.
In a landmark judgement, high court judge Hans Fabricius ruled that authorities in South Africa can probe and prosecute not only high-level crimes committed in neighbouring Zimbabwe, but anywhere else in the world.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said prosecutors will study the ruling and decide what legal steps to take.
"There may be an appeal,'' said James Gathii, co-chairman of the Africa interest group of the American Society of International Law. ``But I think that more likely than not the [prosecutors] and police will have to take a closer look at the case.''
Tsvangirai's party pleased
The case centres on Zimbabwean officials accused of state-sanctioned torture against scores of activists following a raid on the headquarters of the Movement for Democratic Change in 2007.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai is now the prime minister in a power-sharing government with Mugabe, and his party hailed the decision.
"Torture is a barbaric instrument of dealing with issues of politics," spokesman Nelson Chamisa told the AFP news agency. "For that reason it remains our wish that all people of Zimbabwe with injured hearts and troubled minds are brought to restorative and rehabilitative, as opposed to retributive, justice."
The Southern Africa Litigation Centre and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum filed the case in Pretoria seeking to force prosecutors to open an investigation, citing South Africa's obligations to the International Criminal Court.
The two groups want South Africa to arrest and prosecute 17 Zimbabweans accused of torture in 2007 if they enter the country for holiday, shopping or seeking medical treatment.
South African police and prosecutors refused to investigate in 2008, citing the difficulty and possible political repercussions and saying the law was unclear. In his ruling Tuesday, Fabricius said that refusal was `"unlawful,
inconsistent with the constitution, and therefore invalid.''
Fabricius's ruling was the first under 2002 statues spelling out South Africa's international obligations and risks complicating the country's role as the main mediator in Zimbabwe's political crisis.
Zimbabwe has been governed by a shaky coalition of Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change since 2008. Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, and his ZANU-PF party are accused of using violence and intimidation to hold onto power.
The 88-year-old Mugabe is pushing for elections this year, though few observers think a vote this year could be free or fair. Mugabe has been nominated as his party's sole presidential candidate.