JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal is hearing a landmark case that could radically change the human rights scene in Southern Africa. A legal advocacy group is pushing for South Africa to try a torture case from neighboring Zimbabwe. The lawyers say South Africa is bound as a member of the International Criminal Court to prosecute crimes against humanity in its region. The court’s decision could open the door for more such cases.
The case that lawyers are pushing South Africa to try is a harrowing one. In 2007, court documents say, Zimbabwe police raided the headquarters of an opposition party and rounded up scores of supporters.
Those arrested say the police beat, water boarded and shocked them, and even held mock executions. Their lawyers argue that the torture is a crime against humanity because it was so widespread and systematic.
The names of the alleged perpetrators and victims have not been publicly released, though lawyers have said the accused are “high-level officials.”
But the case has faced resistance in South African courts. That’s because it happened in neighboring Zimbabwe, and prosecutors have argued that they have no obligation to try the case here.
But the Southern African Litigation Center says that South Africa’s own laws oblige them to step in and prosecute crimes against humanity in their region. Here’s the group’s international criminal justice project lawyer, Angela Mudukuti.
“South Africa has domesticated the Rome Statute, the act is called the Implementation of the Rome Statute Act. It’s a domestic piece of South African legislation. And in terms of that, South Africa has jurisdiction over crimes against humanity. Now due to geographical proximity and the possibility of South Africa’s capabilities to try this matter, this is why we brought it before a South African court. South Africa is uniquely positioned in the sense that we have the correct legislation and we have the support structure to exercise universal jurisdiction and to bring justice to the victims," said Mudukuti.
Diana Zimbudzana, a project coordinator for the Zimbabwean Exiles Forum, says this case is about more than just laws and semantics. In the end, she says, it’s about justice.
Zimbudzana says she is not one of the plaintiffs in the case, but says she has also been tortured by Zimbabwe officials. She spoke from outside the court hearing in Bloemfontein on Friday.
“This case should be heard because the victims are there. And they need to see justice being fair and done. For human rights victims, they can never seek resource and justice in Zimbabwe because of the absence of rule of law," said Zimbudzana.
South Africa’s High Court ruled last year that the nation was obliged to try the case, but South African officials sought an appeal. Mudukuti says South African officials were hesitant to try the case for political reasons. The two nations have close diplomatic ties.
She says that this case could have a big impact on human rights in this region.
“I think what this will do is set the correct precedent if the Supreme Court of Appeal upholds the judgement. It will set the correct precedent and deter suspected international criminals from coming to South Africa," she said.
This case is not the first allegation against Zimbabwean officials for severe human rights abuses. Western nations years ago slapped sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle because of alleged rights abuses.
Zimbabwe, like the United States, has also signed the Rome Treaty establishing the ICC, but has not ratified the treaty. That means that the UN Security Council would have to refer this case to the ICC. That is a politically dicey prospect after the African Union condemned the ICC in a special summit in October and ruled that no sitting African head of state should appear before an international court.
Two sitting African heads of state are currently facing cases at the Hague-based court: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta.