South Africa's prosecuting authorities are fighting to overturn a landmark legal ruling made last year, which compelled them to investigate torture and crimes against humanity committed by Zimbabwean officials.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the police on Friday argued in the Supreme Court of Appeal that the international laws which the North Gauteng High Court based its original ruling on had been misinterpreted.
Last year the High Court ruled that the NPA and the police must investigate state-sanctioned torture and other crimes against humanity committed by Zimbabwean officials in 2007. The Court ruled that the authorities had a duty to probe allegations of torture as required by the Rome Statute, which South Africa is a signatory to. The Statute is the foundation for the International Criminal Court and as a signatory, South Africa is committed to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of serious international crimes.
The case was led by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF) and was based on a dossier detailing a politically motivated attack on MDC members in Zimbabwe in 2007. This dossier was handed to the NPA in 2008 but the prosecuting body and the police decided not to take the case further. This decision was overturned by the High Court, which ordered a probe.
The High Court also refused the NPA and the police leave to appeal the legal order. But the authorities then petitioned the Supreme Court of Appeal to have its arguments against the High Court order heard.
On Friday, SALC, the ZEF and other supporters of their case gathered at the court for the hearing, with the NPA and police once again being challenged to honour South Africa's international commitments.
The arguments by the rights groups were also supported by the international lobby group AIDS Free World, which has submitted a dossier detailing the brutal campaign of rape unleashed against MDC supporters in 2008. The group is also arguing that under international law, South Africa has an obligation to investigate these crimes against humanity.
Judgement on the matter was reserved.
ZEF Director Gabriel Shumba told SW Radio Africa that by appealing the decision, South Africa's prosecuting authorities "are making the case even stronger, because if we win it will be supported by a higher court."
"What is clear is that this is an emotive subject that illustrates more than any other case in Africa the need to combat impunity. So this is a very powerful case that can be used to advance human rights on the continent," Shumba said.