The Pretoria High Court will today give itself a chance to decide an issue that could lead to the revocation of diplomatic immunity granted to Zimbabwe’s former first lady, Grace Mugabe, paving the way for her to face prosecution for the alleged assault of a 20-year-old model.
The court agreed to hear a suit brought by a civil rights watchdog AfriForum — the first important step in a process to have Grace arraigned before the courts for her alleged assault of Gabriella Engels, a young Johannesburg model, in August last year.
Grace was granted diplomatic immunity by the South African government despite allegedly assaulting Engels with an extension cord on August 13 last year.
She reportedly denied that she assaulted Engels, 20, after she allegedly found her with one of her two sons, Chatunga Bellarmine, in a hotel room in Sandton.
Grace has claimed that the model wanted to stab her with a knife when the two had an altercation, resulting in her acting in self-defence.
The matter is set down for today and tomorrow.
It is one of the most important cases that the Pretoria High Court justices will decide during its term.
Bringing Grace to justice has been at the heart of the case and has long been the goal of rights groups that tended to frown at her husband Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime, which was toppled last November in a de facto coup.
“This court application is the first important step in a process to have Mugabe prosecuted for her alleged assault of Gabriella Engels, a young Johannesburg model, in August 2017. High drama reigned last year when it became known that Engels was allegedly assaulted by Mugabe with an electric cord because (Grace Mugabe) was unhappy with the escapades of her two sons in a luxury hotel in Sandton,” Afrikaans rights group AfriForum legal representative Willie Spies said.
“At the time, the South African government decided, in a very controversial manner, to silently grant diplomatic immunity to Grace Mugabe, thus giving her the opportunity to return to Zimbabwe from South Africa and therefore evade prosecution in South Africa. Because of her being granted diplomatic immunity, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) could not further investigate the charges against Mugabe of assault with the intention to cause grievous bodily harm and AfriForum therefore launched a court application to have the controversial grant set aside.”
Spies said various other institutions wanted to participate in talks overseen by the High Court judge as a “friend of the court” that would provide information to help craft a strong case to repeal Grace’s diplomatic immunity.
He said all the applications around this case will be heard simultaneously.
“Should AfriForum be successful in having this diplomatic immunity to Mugabe set aside, it will pave the way for the NPA to take steps to ultimately prosecute Mugabe.”
Spies confirmed Engels’ legal team will include Gerrie Nel, the “bulldog prosecutor” who secured a murder conviction against Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius.
“AfriForum indicated earlier that its private prosecuting unit, under the leadership of Advocate Gerrie Nel, stands ready to institute private prosecution should the NPA decide not to prosecute Mugabe,” Spies said.
According to Engels, Grace burst into the Sandton City hotel room where she and two friends were waiting for Chatunga and started attacking them with an extension cable, resulting in the 20-year-old model sustaining serious injuries, some of which needed suturing.
A statement in which Grace’s representatives sought to explain the circumstances which had led to the alleged assault of Engels, said: “She (Grace) was worried about them and went to see them (Chatunga and Robert Jnr) at their hotel suite. Upon her arrival, Engels, who was intoxicated and unhinged, attacked Grace Mugabe with a knife after she was asked to leave the hotel.
“Security was left with no other option but to remove Engels from the hotel suite,” read Grace’s statement.
The statement also alleged that Engels had been in a fight with other women at Johannesburg’s Taboo nightclub the previous evening, and suggested that this may have been the cause of her injuries.
But Spies has already dismissed the claims that Engels wanted to attack Grace with a knife and that the former first lady had acted in self-defence.
“It’s not really a surprise. We know that … Mugabe has been acting like a criminal for more than 16 years already and it’s critical conduct for a criminal to make a perpetrator of a victim and to turn around the story and to give the impression that the person who was actually on the receiving end of a crime was actually the cause.
“So, I was not surprised that she made this statement and it doesn’t change our case at all and for that very reason, we believe it is so important that this matter should not be left to politicians to decide, should not be left to her friends to grant her immunity, it should be left to the courts to determine the truth and to make sure that the true events of that evening of the 13th of August is determined and that justice runs its course,” he said.
“… Engels is surprised, she knows what happened that evening and knows exactly what her experience was and her version of events was also supported by a security report by a private security company in the hotel … which pictured the entire story.
“So as far as we are concerned, as I said, the truths of the matter will prevail and it is just important the matter should be brought before the courts because the courts have mechanisms of examination, cross examination, leading of evidence, weighing up of evidence in order to get the true picture of events.
“And for that very reason it is so important that the courts should look at it and no one else,” Spies added.
In her August 13, 2017 allegations, Engels said Grace struck her several times with the extension cord which left her with multiple injuries, including gushes in the head and forehead which required stitches.
Engels said when she arrived at the hotel to visit Grace’s sons, one of Grace’s bodyguards had asked her and a friend to wait in a separate room before the first lady allegedly came and started beating her.
“When Grace entered, I had no idea who she was. She walked in with an extension cord and just started beating me with it,” Engels alleged, adding that Grace had also accused her of living with her sons.
“She flipped and just kept on beating me with the plug. Over and over. I had no idea what was going on. I was surprised … I needed to crawl out of the room before I could run away.
“Her 10 bodyguards just stood there watching, no one did anything, no one tried to help me,” she said.
She later posted several pictures of her injuries, which she said were caused by the extension cable allegedly used by Grace during the assault.
The pictures sent social media into meltdown as the international media also covered the alleged assault case prominently.
This is not the first time that Grace has been mired in incidents of violence abroad.
In 2009, she was investigated by Hong Kong police for an alleged assault on a British photographer during what was described at the time as a shopping trip to the city.
She was accused of repeatedly punching Richard Jones — chief photographer of the Hong Kong photo agency Sinopix — who was on an assignment for the British Sunday Times.
In 2014, Grace also confronted journalists at a Singaporean hospital as she attempted to block them from photographing Mugabe as he entered Gleneagles facility for a medical check-up.