Officials in Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF have dismissed a South African court ruling ordering authorities in the neighbouring country to investigate them for rights abuses as irrelevant.
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South African High Court Judge Hans Fabricius on Tuesday ruled that police and prosecutors had acted "unconstitutionally and unlawfully" by refusing to investigate the Zimbabwean officials.
"I hereby hand down a mandatory order, with costs, which obliges the respondents (National Directorate of Public Prosecutions and South Africa Police Service) to investigate the docket before them," Fabricius ruled.
He said there was reasonable suspicion that the rule of law did not exist in Zimbabwe and that state agents were perpetrators of human rights violations. "There was reasonable suspicion that crimes were committed," he ruled.
The ruling followed a petition by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Zimbabwean Exiles Forum (ZEF) to force Zuma's government to prosecute Zimbabwean officials fingered in the human rights abuses in the run-up to the June 2008 presidential election run-off poll.
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But Justice and Legal Affairs Minister Patrick Chinamasa told the state run Herald newspaper the ruling had put South Africa's justice delivery system into disrepute.
"These people are working in cahoots with the ex-Rhodies (former Rhodesians) who brought a case against government on the land issue," he said. "They use the same source of funding to push a vendetta by white former colonial masters to cast Zimbabwe in the worst light to the world."
Chinamasa said the worst offenders were former United States President George Bush and former British Prime Ministr Tony Blair who were not prosecuted for crimes allegedly committed in Iraq.
The ruling, although seen as a major victory for victims of torture, would have far reaching political implications for South Africa, analysts said. South Africa is the main regional mediator in Zimbabwe's political crisis.
Zimbabwean officials regularly travel to the country on official and personal business.
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Under international law, South Africa has a duty to investigate crimes against humanity, the judge said. Prosecutors had previously refused to investigate the officials, who had travelled to South Africa.
"The ruling could put President Zuma in a tight spot as he still has to maintain amicable relations with Zimbabwe are ruling officials to ensure his mediation works," Dumiso Dube said "The same Zanu PF officials who are prime targets for investigations frequently travel to South Africa for medical attention, shopping and other private engagements."
Zimbabwe Exiles Forum chairperson, Gabriel Shumba said the ruling would ensure perpetrators of political violence do not act with impunity. "It will go a long way in combating impunity at a time when Zimbabwe is fast approaching elections," Shumba said.
Six unnamed Zanu PF ministers and service chiefs were reported to be targets of the court action.