Robert Mugabe’s wife has been granted diplomatic immunity by South Africa after she allegedly attacked a model in a luxury Johannesburg hotel, a security source has said.
The ruling would mean that Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, would be allowed to return to her home country and avoid prosecution.
She is accused of whipping 20-year-old Gabriella Engels with an electric extension cable on Sunday evening as the model partied with Mrs Mugabe’s sons.
South African police had put border posts on ‘red alert’ to prevent Mrs Mugabe fleeing and indicated she would receive no special treatment in the case.
Grace Mugabe has been granted diplomatic immunity by South Africa, a security source has said
But a security source, however, said immunity had now been granted. The source also said Grace Mugabe had failed to turn up at a Johannesburg court hearing on Tuesday, as agreed with police, because of concerns she could be attacked.
The case is a diplomatic nightmare for South Africa.
The decision would likely cause outrage in the country with one Afrikaans rights group saying any such ruling would be illegal and a ‘disgrace’.
South Africa has a difficult relationship with its northern neighbour. It is home to an estimated three million Zimbabwean exiles who regard President Robert Mugabe as a dictator who has ruined what was once one of Africa’s most promising democracies.
But although he is also widely reviled in the West, Mugabe is still seen by many Africans as the continent’s elder statesman and a hero of its anti-colonial struggles.
On Friday a senior government source, who did not wish to be named, said there was ‘no way’ the leader’s wife would be arrested because of the diplomatic fallout that would ensue from Zimbabwe.
The 93-year old president, who was scheduled to visit Pretoria this week, arrived two days early in the city to help resolve his wife’s legal problems.
The government source accepted the view widely held by legal experts that Mrs Mugabe was not entitled to immunity because she was in South Africa for medical treatment and added that it is expected the issue would be challenged in court.
Mrs Mugabe is accused of whipping Gabriella Engels (pictured) with an electric extension cable
But the source said that if Mrs Mugabe was prosecuted, other countries in southern Africa, that supported South Africa’s ruling ANC party in the long struggle against apartheid, would see it as a betrayal.
‘There would obviously be implications for our relations with Zimbabwe. Sadly the other countries in the region are watching us and how we are going to act,’ the source said. ‘What is likely to happen is that she will be allowed to go back home, and then we announce that we’ve granted diplomatic immunity and wait for somebody to challenge us.’
Reuters contacted South Africa’s foreign ministry but a spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
Miss Engels’s mother Debbie, who released photographs of her daughter with gashes to her head requiring 14 stitches, said it would be ‘very sad’ if Mrs Mugabe was allowed to leave.
Zimbabwe’s president is said to be in South Africa to try to resolve the issue
However, she said her daughter’s legal team – which includes Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor who secured a murder conviction against Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius – would counter such a move.
‘Gerrie Nel and the team have contingency plans,’ she told Reuters, without elaborating. ‘They will run with it.’
Afriforum, an Afrikaans rights group that Nel joined in January after quitting as a state prosecutor, hit out at alleged plans to grant Mrs Mugabe immunity.
Chief executive Kallie Kriel said: ‘The government has two responsibilities: one, to protect its own citizens and two, to act according to the law. And the granting of diplomatic immunity would transgress the law.’
Harare has made no official comment on the saga and requests for comment from Zimbabwean government officials have gone unanswered. The South African government has restricted all official comment to the police ministry.
The Engels incident is not the first time Grace Mugabe – who is lauded in official Zimbabwean media as ‘Mother of the Nation’ – has been in legal hot water.
In 2009, a newspaper photographer in Hong Kong said Grace and her bodyguard had assaulted him. Police said the incident was reported but no charges were brought.