A South African High Court ruled Tuesday that Pretoria's legal system can be used to investigate and prosecute Zimbabwean officials suspected of crimes against humanity.
The decision by Judge Hans Fabricius could force South Africa to investigate senior Zanu PF officials accused of torture and human rights abuses in the run-up to Zimbabwe's violent and disputed 2008 elections.
He ordered the National Prosecuting Authority to probe accusations contained in a dossier of complaints compiled by the South African Litigation Center and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.
Names of the suspects have not been released, but the dossier has been handed over to South African officials.
Nicole Fritz of the Litigation Center said the complainants, members of the Movement for Democratic Change, accuse 18 Zimbabweans of torture and abuse.
"One is not talking about isolated incidents, it is not one crime. We are talking about a huge of number of individuals who can testify to the same type of crime being committed against them. It is widespread and systematic."
South Africa is a signatory to the 1998 Rome Statute which brought about the International Criminal Court, and passed implementing legislation in 2002.
Fritz said this enables South Africa to prosecute those accused of human rights crimes committed outside its borders.
She said a number of the accused travel regularly to South Africa, for both official and personal reasons, adding local authorities have enough information to identify and arrest them should they again enter the country.
Commenting, Zimbabwe Attorney General Johannes Tomana told VOA that South Africa has no jurisdiction over Harare.
But in another clear sign that the coalition government is divided, deputy justice minister Obert Gutu of the Tsvangirai MDC formation hailed the ruling as a step in the right direction.
Executive director Irene Petras of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights says the ruling is significant for human rights advocates.
But University of Zimbabwe law lecturer, Professor Lovemore Madhuku, who’s also chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, dismisses the ruling as a non-event.