The power of precedent

Former Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana must be cursing the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC). Until SALC's precedent-setting High Court victory earlier this year in the Zimbabwe torture case, Ravalomanana was happily living in exile in South Africa waiting for his chance to return home. But now he finds himself under investigation by his host's National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for alleged crimes against humanity while he was battling to stay in power in Antananarivo.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

August 6th, 2012

Former Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana must be cursing the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC). Until SALC's precedent-setting High Court victory earlier this year in the Zimbabwe torture case, Ravalomanana was happily living in exile in South Africa waiting for his chance to return home. But now he finds himself under investigation by his host's National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for alleged crimes against humanity while he was battling to stay in power in Antananarivo.

SALC alwasy said that its case was not just about the state-sanctioned torture perpetrated in Zimbabwe but also about ensuring that South Africa lives up to its committments under international law - to investigate and prosecute people for crimes against humanity wherever the crimes took place. And while the government is going to appeal the High Court ruling, the NPA seems to have accepted that it is indeed duty bound to look into genuine, evidence-based allegations - even if the allegations were committed outside South Africa and involved no South Africans.

It is a stuning turn around. After all, this is the same NPA that refused point-blank - and with no justifiable reason - to investigate the substantial evidence presented by SALC and the Zimbabwean Exiles Forum against senior Zimbabwean officals linked to the torture of opposition activists.

This is not to say that the investigation will proceed to prosecution - a decision that will be up to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Needless to say, there is a lot of politics involved in the process and despite claims that both the NPA and DPP are independent bodies, it is unlikely that any decision will be made without some input from the those in high political office. But what that input will be is anyone's guess.

But even if there is no prosecution and the investigation simply fizzles out, the sheer fact that the NPA has admitted to pursuing the case and searching for evidence will send a chill down the spines of perpetrators of crimes against humanity who thought that South Africa could provide them with a safehouse - or at least a safe shopping trip or two. And it will give another boost to the fight against impunity for international crimes.

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