Grace Mugabe returns to Zimbabwe despite assault claim

(AP) — The wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe returned home from South Africa on Sunday despite calls that she be prosecuted for allegedly assaulting a young model at a luxury hotel in Johannesburg.

A report by Zimbabwean state broadcaster ZBC showed Grace Mugabe greeting government and military officials at the Harare airport after returning on an Air Zimbabwe plane with her husband, who had attended a summit of southern African leaders in Pretoria.

The Mugabe couple did not attend a state funeral for a senior ruling party official later in the day in the Zimbabwean capital; the president usually presides over such events.

The South African government said Saturday that it was deciding whether to grant diplomatic immunity to Grace Mugabe at the request of the Zimbabwean government, though there was no immediate comment from South African authorities on Sunday.

South African police had issued a “red alert” at borders to ensure she didn’t leave undetected and said they were waiting for a government decision on the immunity appeal.

Asked via text message about whether diplomatic immunity had been granted, a South African foreign affairs spokesman told The Associated Press to contact South African police; a police spokesman referred the question back to the foreign ministry.

Gabriella Engels, a 20-year-old model, said Zimbabwe’s first lady attacked her on Aug. 13, whipping her with an extension cord that cut her forehead.

In reaction to the news that Grace Mugabe had returned to Zimbabwe, a group representing Engels said Sunday they will go to court to challenge the South African government if it is confirmed that immunity was granted to Mugabe.

“We will take a long-term approach on this,” said Willie Spies, legal representative at AfriForum, an organization that primarily represents South Africa’s white Afrikaner minority.

“She may be back in Zimbabwe, but it may mean that she will find it very difficult to come back to South Africa in the future,” Spies said.

Zimbabwe’s state media have largely remained silent on the scandal over Zimbabwe’s first lady.

The Zimbabwean president’s outspoken wife has been criticized for a fiery temper and lavish shopping expeditions, but her rising political profile has some asking whether she is maneuvering to succeed her husband.

She recently said that Zimbabwe’s ruling party should restore a provision in its constitution stating that one of the party’s vice presidents should be a woman, and has publicly challenged her 93-year-old husband to name a successor.

Also Sunday, one of Zimbabwe’s two vice presidents, Phelekezela Mphoko, presided over the funeral for Shuvai Ben Mahofa, a senior member of Zimbabwe’s ruling party who died a week ago.

South African Airways, meanwhile, said Sunday — hours after the Mugabes returned to Harare— that it was resuming flights between South Africa and Zimbabwe after they were blocked by Zimbabwean authorities.

Zimbabwe’s action on Saturday followed the grounding of an Air Zimbabwe flight at Johannesburg’s main international airport on Friday evening. That plane was cleared for flying on Saturday night, South African civil aviation authorities said. It was unclear whether the Mugabes used the same aircraft to return to Zimbabwe.

Both countries said they had imposed restrictions because the affected planes did not have a “foreign operator’s permit.”

South African Airways said it prepared and submitted required documents after the cancellation of flights between Johannesburg, Harare and the Zimbabwean city of Victoria Falls.

The airline dispute had nothing to do with political tensions linked to the scandal over Grace Mugabe’s alleged assault, Zimbabwe’s transport minister, Joram Gumbo, told state media.

Willie Spies, the lawyer representing the model who said she was assaulted, speculated that the airline impasse was a Zimbabwean ruse designed to distract attention from the first lady’s troubles.

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