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For Mugabe's Rape Gangs, Time Has Run Out

South Africa has made a groundbreaking decision to investigate crimes against humanity in Zimbabwe. This unprecedented action positions the country as a global leader in confronting rape worldwide, and provides the first real hope that a past campaign of mass rape will be prosecuted and future atrocities will be prevented.

25 February 2013 (Johannesburg, South Africa) — This month, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the South African Police Service (SAPS) formally agreed to open an investigation into widespread rape perpetrated in the lead-up to Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential elections. That decision was made in response to a legal submission filed by AIDS-Free World, requesting that South African authorities investigate and prosecute the crimes. The submission included testimony from 84 victims, reports from witnesses, doctors, and domestic and international NGOs, and the names of over 200 suspected perpetrators and orchestrators of the politically motivated rape. The Priority Crimes Litigation Unit of the NPA and the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation of SAPS wasted no time in responding to the submission, demonstrating the gravity of the charges and of the fact that, if left unaddressed, such crimes could be committed again during the 2013 elections.

During the 2008 presidential elections, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and members of his ZANU-PF political party unleashed a ruthless campaign of violence against opposition party supporters in order to intimidate voters and secure the presidency. Their political strategy featured the widespread gang rape and torture of women throughout the country.

Since the 2008 elections, AIDS-Free World and our Zimbabwean partners have worked to document the mass rape and to seek accountability for the crimes. The numerous Zimbabwean individuals and organizations working with AIDS-Free World on behalf of the victims are afraid to be named publicly due to fear of retribution from ZANU-PF, especially as the 2013 elections loom and security deteriorates.

Over the course of nine months, a legal team assembled by AIDS-Free World took testimony from women from all over the country, many of whom were raped in ZANU-PF “base camps” in the days immediately preceding the June 2008 run-off election. The victims survived the rapes, but were left to cope with physical and psychological trauma, abandonment, unwanted pregnancies, and the lingering terror that their attackers were among the 15 percent of adults in Zimbabwe infected with HIV.

The extent of these crimes — their brutality and their impact on the survivors, their families and communities — is massive. The evidence we gathered demonstrates that the politically motivated rape rose to the level of crimes against humanity. Yet more than four years later, none of these crimes has been investigated or punished.

Until now.

At this moment, justice for the Zimbabwean victims of politically motivated rape rests entirely in the hands of South African authorities. Prosecuting the crimes against humanity domestically in Zimbabwe is not possible in the current political climate and legal system. Even the newly created Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission cannot investigate any of the politically motivated rape or other violence that took place in 2008; a clause inserted into the bill that created the Commission last year prevents the Commissioners from investigating human rights abuses prior to 2009. The International Criminal Court (ICC) cannot address the crimes because Zimbabwe has not ratified the Rome Statute and therefore is not under the ICC’s jurisdiction. South Africa, however, has both ratified the Rome Statute and incorporated it into its domestic law, giving the country international and statutory obligations to bring the perpetrators of such atrocities to justice. A recent High Court decision reaffirmed these legal obligations.[1] South Africa’s proximity to and commerce with Zimbabwe also make it likely that perpetrators will enter the country, where they can then be prosecuted.

Mugabe and his ZANU-PF cronies will claim, as they often do when challenged, that this is merely Western imperialism at play, another racist attack against them. They will claim to speak for Zimbabwe’s best interests while stifling the many Zimbabwean voices of dissent. They will continue to co-opt the freedom fighter legacy that they have manipulated so cleverly for decades, while simultaneously murdering, torturing, starving, and raping their own people.

The timing of this investigation could not be more urgent. The country is again poised on the verge of a presidential election. Threats of violence against civil society and supporters of the opposition parties have again been made.

Eighty-four women survived the most brutal and personal of crimes and emerged to tell their stories, for themselves and for the countless other victims all over Zimbabwe. South Africa is responding.


AIDS-Free World is an international advocacy organization that works to promote more urgent and effective global responses to HIV and AIDS.

Download a copy of this press release (PDF, 157 KB)

Read more about escalating violence in Zimbabwe as the next election approaches

Read "Electing to Rape," AIDS-Free World's report on politically motivated rape in Zimbabwe

For media inquiries, contact:

In South Africa:
Paula Donovan
Co-Director, AIDS-Free World
International phone: +1 781 266 7187
In South Africa: +27 (0) 82 862 5249

In North America:
Gill Mathurin
Communications Manager, AIDS-Free World
Tel: +1 647 406 5731

Christina Magill
Executive Assistant to Stephen Lewis
Tel: +1 416 657 4458

[1] On May 8, 2012, the North Gauteng High Court ruled that the NPA and the South African Police Service had international criminal law obligations to investigate widespread torture that took place in Zimbabwe in 2008.  The case was brought by the Southern African Litigation Center and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, who documented the torture and filed the initial submission with the NPA; it is currently on appeal.