South Africa has granted Zimbabwe’s first lady Grace Mugabe diplomatic immunity to allow her to return home and avoid prosecution for the alleged assault of a model, a security source has said.
Police had put border posts on “red alert” in South Africa to prevent her from fleeing and said she would not benefit from special treatment in the case involving Gabriella Engels.
The 20-year-old model claims Mrs Mugabe whipped her with an electric extension cable as she waiting with two friends in a luxury Johannesburg hotel suite to meet one of Mr Mugabe’s sons.
A security source told Reuters news agency that Mrs Mugabe had failed to turn up to a Johannesburg court hearing on Tuesday over concerns she could be attacked.
South Africa is home to an estimated three million Zimbabwean exiles who regard President Mugabe as a dictator who has ruined one of Africa’s most promising democracies.
A senior government source said there was “no way” Mrs Mugabe, 52, would be arrested because of the diplomatic consequences from Zimbabwe.
Robert Mugabe, 93, arrived two days early to a summit in Pretoria this week to help resolve his wife’s legal problems.
The source agreed with the view held by legal experts that Grace Mugabe is not entitled to immunity because she was in South Africa for medical treatment.
The government was expected to challenge her immunity in court, but the decision was authorised because other countries that supported the ANC in its battle against apartheid would see her prosecution as a betrayal, the source added.
“There would obviously be implications for our relations with Zimbabwe,” the source said.
“Sadly the other countries in the region are watching us and how we are going to act.
“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.”
South Africa’s foreign ministry has not commented.
Ms Engels’ mother Debbie released photographs of her daughter showing gashes on her head that required 14 stitches.
Her legal team, which includes Gerrie Nel the prosecutor who secured a murder conviction against Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius, would counter the immunity move, she said.
It is not the first time Mrs Mugabe has faced legal action.
In 2009, a newspaper photographer in Hong Kong accused her and a bodyguard of assaulting him. Police said the incident was reported, but no charges were brought.