Zimbabwe has requested diplomatic immunity for the first lady, Grace Mugabe, after she was accused of assaulting a model at a hotel in Johannesburg, according to a statement from South Africa’s police ministry.
The suspect’s lawyers “and her government representatives made verbal representations … that the suspect wished to invoke diplomatic immunity cover”, it said.
The statement also confirmed that the wife of the 93-year-old Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe remains in South Africa, despite reports that she had returned home after failing to turn herself in to face charges of assault.
Mugabe is accused of attacking 20-year-old Gabriella Engels with an electrical extension cord after the model went to see the Mugabes’ sons Robert and Chatunga at the Capital 20 West Hotel in Johannesburg’s upmarket Sandton district on Sunday.
Pictures posted on social media appeared to show a cut to Engels’ forehead and she claimed to have more injuries on the back of her head.
“We were chilling in a hotel room, and [the sons] were in the room next door. She came in and started hitting us. She flipped and just kept beating me with the plug, over and over,” Engels told local media.
The South African model said she had no clue who her attacker was until the alleged assault was over. She had “no idea what was going on … I was surprised. I had to crawl out of the room before I could run away,” she said.
Accusing the first lady’s bodyguards of standing by and watching during the alleged assault, Engels said: “The front of my forehead is busted open. I’m a model and I make my money based on my looks.”
Police said a 20-year-old woman had filed “a case of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm”.
Engels has said she “did not lift a finger on the first lady”.
It was not immediately clear whether Mugabe, 52, was travelling on a diplomatic passport or would qualify for immunity if police bring charges against her.
Hinting at a potentially serious diplomatic rift between the neighbouring nations, the South African police statement made it clear she would be “processed through the legal system”.
A Zimbabwean intelligence source previously told Reuters that Mugabe was not travelling on a diplomatic passport.
There had been confusion over her whereabouts on Tuesday after the South African police minister, Fikile Mbalula, said she had handed herself in to authorities and was due in court, only for that court to close for the day without her making an appearance.
Later the same day, an unnamed Zimbabwean official told Reuters that Mugabe had returned to Harare from South Africa. “Yes, she is back in the country. We don’t know where this issue of assault charges is coming from,” the senior government official said.
A second official made the same claim, now contradicted by South African authorities, and accused media outlets of a plotting to tarnish the first family’s name.
Police said on Wednesday that Mugabe had been expected to report to a police station on Tuesday to give her version of events and “obtain a warning statement”, but that she failed to appear.
Mugabe regularly speaks at political rallies and is seen as a possible contender to take over from her increasingly frail husband, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from British colonial rule in 1980.