By Bridget Mananavire
Embattled First Lady Grace Mugabe yesterday asked for diplomatic immunity cover to avoid being arrested for an alleged severe assault of a 20-year-old model she found in the hotel with her sons in Sandton, South Africa, on Sunday night.
This comes as President Robert Mugabe left for South Africa yesterday, ahead of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Heads of State summit which gets underway in Pretoria tomorrow.
It was not clear whether Mugabe had gone ahead of schedule to try and resolve Grace’s issue which has threatened to spark a diplomatic row between Zimbabwe and its biggest trading partner, South Africa, ever since police indicated that they want her arrested over the assault of Gabriella Engels.
It was another day of drama yesterday as it emerged that contrary to conflicting and inaccurate media reports that Grace had escaped from facing justice, she was still in South Africa as her lawyers and government representatives from the Zimbabwe Embassy in Pretoria, were frantically trying to save her from being arrested and dragged to court.
South Africa Police Services acting boss Lesetja Mothiba told Parliament’s portfolio committee of police that Grace’s lawyers had pleaded diplomatic immunity before she was to handover herself to police on Tuesday.
“The whole thing (assault of Engels) happened, I think it was around Sunday, but the matter was only brought to the attention of the police on Monday in the afternoon and our provincial commissioner put a team together to look for her.
“She (Grace) booked out of the hotel where she was staying together with her sons. Our position was that she must go to court. The whole day yesterday (Tuesday) we were waiting for her . . . we were expecting a statement from her,” Mothiba told the parliamentary committee.
Mothiba said after consulting the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) they decided that police was not going to let the first lady off the hook.
Later, The South African police ministry issued a statement in which it said Grace had changed her mind about going to the police as the lawyers together with Zimbabwe Embassy officials had officially invoked diplomatic immunity cover.
“The suspect’s lawyers and her government representatives made verbal representations to SAPS investigators that the suspect wished to invoke diplomatic immunity cover and thus she elected to change her mind about the warning statement,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Discussions with the suspect’s lawyers and the Zimbabwean High Commission representatives are taking place to make sure that the suspect is processed through the legal system,” the ministry said.
It was not yet clear by the time of going to print whether Grace was going to be granted the diplomatic immunity relief by the NPA.
A top official in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) earlier said since Grace was not on official business, diplomatic immunity would not apply in her case.
“Firstly, for it to apply, she needs to be here on official business. It won’t apply if she’s here on holiday or for something else.
“Secondly, as a first lady, she’s not part of government or a government official. It doesn’t apply just because she’s the wife of a president,” said Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela.
Respected Zimbabwean lawyer Petinah Gappah said Grace did not fully enjoy diplomatic community.
“There are two kinds of immunity, full immunity for head of mission or ambassador level ranks and similar, and functional immunity, where immunity applies only in the exercise of official functions. So a person with functional immunity may evade prosecution for traffic fines incurred while driving to work, but is not covered for an assault committed in a night club,” explained Gappah.
“Heads of State also enjoy full immunity in international law, subject of course to the norms of international criminal law, which allow heads of States to be brought to account for specific crimes. In such cases, their immunity would be pierced, see for instance, Al-Bashir of Sudan.
“I would argue that Grace enjoys neither full nor functional immunity for any crimes she may have committed in South Africa. She is the wife of a Head of State, who enjoys full immunity, and not a head of State herself. She is not even a government minister.
“She was not in South Africa as part of any government delegation, so she was not there on official business. Had she been there to attend a summit or similar, as an official government delegate, things might be different, but she was not,” added Gappah.
“She may travel on a diplomatic passport, but so do many persons who do not enjoy diplomatic immunity. So basically, she was just another tourist who committed a crime. Such persons can be tried in the countries of their crimes, and if they do not avail themselves for trial, a request for extradition may be made,” she explained further.
Curiously, the South African police ministry said the Zimbabwe government had said Grace was expected to attend the Sadc summit and bi-lateral diplomatic meetings in Pretoria — as it tried to bolster its diplomatic immunity cover invocation.
According to Mugabe, Grace missed last week’s youth interface rally in Gwanda as she had travelled to South Africa for treatment on her injured ankle, in a statement which appeared to suggest that his wife’s trip was private and personal.
Problems for Grace started on Sunday when she was accused by Engels of allegedly striking her several times with an extension cord which left her with multiple injures, including gushes in the head and forehead which required sutures.
The First Family’s sons, Robert Junior and Chatunga Bellarmine, are resident in Johannesburg where they are studying following the decision to relocate Junior, who had been based in the United Arab Emirates.
Engels said when she arrived at the hotel visiting her sons, one of Grace’s bodyguards asked her and a friend to wait in a separate room before the first lady allegedly 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 said on Monday as she filed an assault charge against Grace.
Engels said Grace accused her of living with her sons.
“She flipped and just kept 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.
“I am a model, with this scar over my face my whole career is ruined.
“I don’t know how to deal with this, but I am trying hard. I am trying so hard to be strong, “said Engels.
Engels later posted several pictures of her injuries which she said were caused by an extension cable allegedly used by Grace during the assault.
The pictures sent social media into meltdown as the world was abuzz with Grace’s alleged assault of the model.
Grace has in the past been caught in incidents of violence.
In 2009, Grace was investigated by Hong Kong police for an alleged assault on a British photographer during 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 confronted journalists at a Singaporean hospital as she bid to block them from photographing Mugabe as he entered Gleneagles facility for his medical check-up.
Of late, both Mugabe and Grace have been showing signs of exasperation with their sons with the Zanu PF leader publicly warning Chatunga to lay off fun and concentrate on his studies.
Grace, just like her husband, last month shared her agony with relatives over the continuing wayward behaviour of sons.
The errant and fun-loving Mugabe’s sons, despite their status in society, have found it difficult to lead restricted lifestyles and have often been pictured mingling with ordinary Zimbabweans at football matches and upmarket entertainment venues. Daily News