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S.Africa looking into Zimbabwe’s 2008 vote-linked rapes

South Africa is looking into allegations that dozens of Zimbabwean women were systematically raped by suspected supporters of President Robert Mugabe in the run up to the 2008 presidential run-off, a global NGO said Tuesday.

It was however not immediately clear if a formal investigation will be launched.

New York-based AIDS-Free World said it had in December asked South African prosecutors to probe allegations that at least 84 women were raped for supporting the opposition in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Officials from the NGO said that earlier this month they had received a letter saying a docket had been opened on the matter.

South Africa’s prosecutors said the case has been handed over to the Hawks, an elite police unit responsible for priority investigations.

“The Hawks are busy with the assessment process that will determine whether or not an official investigation should be conducted,” Makhosini Nkosi, spokesman for the National Prosecution Authority said in a statement.

AIDS-Free World said the victims had identified in more than 200 alleged rapes.

The women said they were raped during the campaign period leading to the June 2008 presidential run-off, as punishment for supporting the opposition after Morgan Tsvangirai took the lead in the first round of voting.

“South Africa has taken an extraordinary action to investigate what occurred in 2008,” Paula Donovan, a director with AIDS-free told a news conference in Johannesburg.

AIDS-Free World said South Africa can probe and try such crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction which allows a country to prosecute grave international and morally-offensive crimes in its own courts.

The announcement comes just weeks before Zimbabwe holds a vital constitutional referendum ahead of presidential elections expected within months.

Stephen Lewis, a co-director with AIDS-Free World said South Africa’s decision “sends a clear message to would-be perpetrators who use crime against humanity … the world is watching, the world will no longer tolerate such heinous offences.”

Shonali Shome, a human rights lawyer who helped compile the testimonies from the victims said “it became clear we were looking at rape and torture that were perpetrated on such a wide scale they qualify as crimes against humanity because they were both widespread and systematic.”

Shome said women were seized from their homes and taken to militia camps where they would be raped by men who wore ZANU-PF t-shirts and chanted party songs.