August 16, 2017 / 2:14 PM / 2 months ago

Grace Mugabe seeks diplomatic immunity in South African assault case

FILE PHOTO: President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace attend a rally of his ruling ZANU (PF) in Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe July 29, 2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s first lady Grace Mugabe has sought diplomatic immunity in South Africa, where she is under investigation over the assault of a 20-year-old model in an upmarket hotel, South African police said on Wednesday.

Police also confirmed that Mugabe, the 52-year-old wife of Zimbabwe’s leader Robert, had failed to appear at a court hearing on Tuesday relating to allegations she attacked Gabriella Engels with an electric extension chord.

Engels’ mother Debbie told Reuters her daughter had received 14 stitches on her head from Sunday’s assault - which the mother did not witness - and demanded Mugabe face justice.

She also showed Reuters photographs taken in the hours after the incident showing gashes on Gabriella’s forehead and back of the head. Another picture, taken on Wednesday, showed a large, livid bruise on her right thigh.

“I just want justice for my daughter. It’s not about money. It’s about justice. She attacked my child for no reason,” she said.

The police statement said Harare had sought diplomatic immunity for Mugabe - which if granted would exempt her from prosecution - but said she would be “processed through the legal system”.

Reuters has not been able to verify key aspects of the assault allegations independently, and multiple requests for comment from Mugabe’s spokesman in Harare and from Information Minister Chris Mushowe went unanswered.

Mugabe, a potential successor to her 93-year-old husband, was in South Africa to receive treatment to an injured foot, according to local media reports. A Zimbabwean intelligence source told Reuters she was not traveling on a diplomatic passport.

Criminal attorney Riaan Louw said diplomatic immunity would not apply if Mugabe had indeed entered on private business.

“If she wasn’t here on official business, that rules out the possibility of diplomatic immunity,” Louw said.

Gabriella Engels shows her injuries in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 13, 2017. Debbie Engels via REUTERS

DIPLOMATIC FALLOUT?

However, given the potential for diplomatic fallout, South African prosecutors could yet decide not to prosecute if they thought the injuries were not too severe, he added.

“They can fail to prosecute her,” he said. “They’ve got the powers to decide that it’s not in the interests of the community or it might create animosity between us and Zimbabwe.”

Slideshow (6 Images)

Police said Tuesday’s abortive court hearing was designed to obtain a statement from Mugabe, along with her version of the events, but that she failed to appear as arranged.

Police spokesman Vish Naidoo did not comment on the specifics of the case, other than to say it related to assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

Reuters has been unable to identify Mugabe’s lawyers in Johannesburg. Isaac Moyo, Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Pretoria, said he “knew nothing”. “I have to go to my office to get briefed,” he said.

Gabriella Engels said she was attacked while waiting to meet up with Chatunga, one of Mugabe’s two adult sons, in the hotel in Johannesburg.

The News24 website quoted Engels’ version of events in the hotel room. “When Grace entered, I had no idea who she was. She walked in with an extension cord and just started beating me with it,” the model said.

The incident is not the first time Mugabe has been accused of assault.

In 2009, a newspaper photographer in Hong Kong said she and her bodyguard had assaulted him. Police there said the incident was reported but that no charges were brought.

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by James Macharia and Janet Lawrence

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