“The court’s decision makes it clear that South Africa has a legal obligation to investigate the perpetrators of international crimes wherever those crimes were committed,” said Priti Patel, deputy director of the SA Litigation Centre (Salc).
Salc said the finding by the Supreme Court of Appeal earlier in the day was a landmark decision for local and international justice.
Salc and the Zimbabwe Exiles’ Forum (ZEF) brought the case to the South African courts.
Patel said the ruling confirmed that the dispensing of international justice was not restricted to international forums.
“It commits the South African authorities to play their part in ensuring that torturers and other international criminals are held accountable for their actions.”
Salc submitted a document to the National Prosecuting Authority in 2008 containing evidence of the alleged involvement of key Zimbabwean officials in perpetrating crimes against humanity in relation to the torture of opposition party members in March 2007.
They wanted the NPA and the SAPS to initiate an investigation into the alleged crimes. The NPA and the SAPS refused to investigate and Salc and the ZEF appealed to the high court. It found in Salc’s favour.
The SAPS and the NPA appealed against the finding to the Supreme Court of Appeal.
The SCA held that the SAPS was empowered to investigate alleged human rights violations in Zimbabwe.
The court dismissed the appeal of the national police commissioner and national director of public prosecutions in the matter.
The SCA rejected the police’s submission that crimes against humanity were deemed to have been committed only once the perpetrators set foot in South Africa.
The court held that the police could investigate, irrespective of whether the alleged perpetrators were in the country.
It further found that, under international law, the SAPS was obliged to initiate an investigation into the alleged offences.
The court found that, on the police’s own version, there was enough evidence to initiate an investigation. This included determining whether the alleged perpetrators were in South Africa.
“No doubt, in conducting that investigation, the police will consider issues such as the gathering of information in a manner that does not impinge on Zimbabwe’s sovereignty,” the judgment read.
The court said it could not tell the police how to investigate such issues.