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South Africa grants Zimbabwe’s first lady immunity over assault claims

Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe in Masvingo on Dec. 16. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

Grace Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, is back in her country after South Africa granted her diplomatic immunity Sunday amid allegations that she viciously assaulted a 20-year-old model who was spending time in a hotel with two of her sons in the city of Johannesburg.

Saying she was “acting in the interests of South Africa,” International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane gave Mugabe the green light to return home with her husband, who was attending a summit of southern African leaders.

But instead of averting an international incident, the South African government may have inflamed one.

South Africa's main opposition party demanded a parliamentary inquiry into the decision and said on Twitter that the government no longer “has legitimacy in the arena of international diplomacy and displays a total disregard for the rule of law.” A lawyer representing Gabriella Engels, the victim of the alleged assault, said he would seek to bar the Zimbabwean first lady from ever returning to South Africa. Hundreds of protesters had gathered at the summit Saturday calling for Mugabe's arrest.

Just days before, South African police had issued a “red alert” along the country's borders to ensure that Mugabe would not flee undetected. The police had also claimed Tuesday that Mugabe had turned herself in before admitting that she, in fact, had not, and that she had been a no-show at a mandated court appearance.

Engels pressed charges and posted pictures of a bloody gash on her forehead, adding in a caption that she had two more on the back of her head.

“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 told News24.

“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.”

Mugabe had ostensibly come to Johannesburg for treatment of a leg injury. The allegations against her put the South African government in the difficult position of either damaging relations with a close historical and economic partner or suffering a public relations debacle just as a tide of anti-government sentiment has welled up.

Mugabe and her sons, Robert Jr., 25, and Chatunga, 21, have reputations as acting under the presumption of impunity. On numerous occasions, the first lady has been accused of assaulting photographers and then invoked diplomatic immunity. Robert Jr. and Chatunga have been booted from at least two apartments for rowdiness.

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