A South African court ruled that government officials "unreasonably delayed" a decision about whether to grant the Dalai Lama a visa for a planned 2011 trip, largely out of fears of angering the Chinese government.
Tibet's spiritual leader was forced to cancel plans to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday celebrations in October 2011.
The Supreme Court of Appeal's decision heavily criticised former Home Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on Thursday.
Dlamini-Zuma, who is President Jacob Zuma's ex-wife, now heads the Africa Union.
The government denied it had bowed to pressure from China to block the trip, as the ruling is a legal embarrassment and raises questions about politics influencing decisions of South Africa's immigration services.
"What is justified by the evidence is an inference that the matter was deliberately delayed so as to avoid a decision," reads the ruling by Judge R W Nugent.
"It hardly needs saying that the minister is not entitled to deliberately procrastinate. Procrastination by itself establishes unreasonable delay."
The Dalai Lama was welcomed to South Africa in 1996 and met with the country's first black and democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. But in 2009, the South African government kept the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates' peace conference, saying it would detract attention from the 2010 soccer World Cup.
|The court said that former Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma "was not entitled to deliberately procrastinate." [Reuters]
The spiritual leader later made plans to travel to South Africa in October 2011 to attend the 80th birthday party of a fellow Nobel laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
He and others in his entourage applied for visas through the South African High Commission office in New Delhi about two months ahead of the planned visit, according to the court ruling.
Tutu was furious about the visa delay for his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner and accused the government of behaving "worse than the apartheid government".
In response to the ruling, Archbishop Tutu's office said it as a "credit to South Africa's judicial system" and he looked forward to inviting the Dalai Lama to South Africa for his 90th birthday.
In his ruling, Nugent acknowledged that pressure from China, a major trading partner with South Africa, played a part in the delays.
However, the judge said he did not find any evidence that officials had plans to deny the visa outright.
The Dalai Lama wants increased autonomy for Tibet, the homeland from which he has been exiled since 1959. China accuses him of being a separatist.