The case was brought before the Supreme Court of Appeal following allegations of torture of opposition party members in March 2007 in Zimbabwe.
The allegations include charges of water-boarding and electrical shocks being applied to the genitalia of activists opposed to long-serving President Robert Mugabe.
“This decision is really significant and is very much a precedent,” said Priti Patel, the deputy director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which had filed the suit.
“The court’s decision makes it clear that South Africa has a legal obligation to investigate the perpetrators of international crimes wherever those crimes were committed,” she said.
According to SALC, the suspects visit South Africa, and therefore the government had an obligation to investigate the allegations.
The South African National Prosecuting Authority had claimed before the court that it was not required to investigate the alleged perpetrators because they were not presently in the country, but this was rejected by Judge Mohammed Navsa.
The NPA can still appeal the decision to the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court.
Mugabe, who won elections this year to extend his 33 years at the helm of Zimbabwe, has denounced the attempts to investigate the 17 officials accused of torture as an assault on his country’s sovereignty.
An investigation could strain relations between the two countries. – dpa