Africa

Suspects' deaths cast suspicion on Zimbabwe's police Inyasha Chivara

Inyasha Chivara

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights claims that there appears to be a police hit squad that is killing criminal suspects in custody.

Zimbabwe's police chief Augustine Chihuri. (AFP)

The non-governmental organisation has documented evidence of what appears to be a trend - suspects are arrested, tortured, beaten and shot. It has documented more than a dozen cases in the past two years in which suspects have died under similar circumstances.

A senior member of the police told the Mail & Guardian that criminals have become a "bother and burden to the state" and the kill-in-custody policy "is nothing new within the force", which appears to back up the NGO's claim.

Tawanda Zhuwarara, a lawyer with the organisation, said they had "noticed the emergence of a disturbing pattern and the similarities cannot be mere coincidence. Suspects are arrested, injured while in custody [and] suddenly they are allegedly shot while allegedly attempting to escape."

Glaring discrepancies in police reports, government-conducted autopsies, the testimonies of relatives and friends, and independent postmortems point to a possible undeclared countrywide policy to kill suspected criminals.

"We have noticed an unusual pattern, especially in the vehicle theft squad. There is either gross complicity or, [more] likely, a culture of impunity towards the death of suspects in police custody," Zhuwarara said.

M&G investigations and legal documents reveal that:

  • The police said they had referred the matter for an inquest and were not legally obliged to provide dockets.
  • Raymond Matinyenya, a vehicle theft suspect, died in Harare in police custody in August 2011. State media reported that Matinyenya died in a shoot-out after he "attempted to flee from police", but pictures of his corpse show a bullet wound under his chin. In a letter, copied to police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri, the NGO demanded that the police inform the family of the circumstances that led to "your officers shooting and killing Matinyenya" and to provide Matinyenga's docket.
  • In March 2012, Emmson Ngundu, also arrested for vehicle theft, was shot allegedly trying to escape from police custody. Ngundu's family said they were denied a copy of the postmortem report.
  • In a high court affidavit, Dorothy Chiwaridzo said her son, Tendayi Dzigarwi (23), was severely assaulted and died in police custody after he was arrested for stealing a vehicle in March last year. Chiwaridzo said she was denied access to her son.

Later Amison Ngundu, whose son Emmson was arrested with Dzig­ar­wi, said both their children had been shot and killed by vehicle theft officers while allegedly trying to escape.

The court ordered a second postmortem, which was carried out by an independent pathologist, Dr SR Naidoo. "It is most likely that the victim was shot through the back first with a muzzle at a distance [of less than] 45 to 60cm away from his back, [later] he was shot at close range with the muzzle of [the] firearm two to three centimetres away from the skin on the right side of the neck," he stated in his report.

Naidoo noted extensive bleeding under the skin and in the muscles of his buttocks, the left lower limb and the right upper limb that "could have been caused by blunt weapons or instruments".

His report also said Dzigarwi may have gone for at least 36 hours without food, as there was no food content in his intestines.

Countering the findings of the report, the acting head of the criminal investigations department vehicle theft squad, Lovemore Nxumalo, said the police postmortem showed that the deceased had "covered a distance of about 15 to 20 metres" before being shot.

  • In September 2012, the police told Wellington Mucha­den­yika's family that he had died in a car accident on the Harare-Mutare road. On inquiry, the family was told that there was no docket relating to the alleged accident at the traffic department, and the police could not identify where the accident had happened.

In a letter to the police, Well­ing­ton's brother, Johannes Mucha­den­yika, said the family knew he had been arrested for allegedly stealing a cellphone a day before his death and had been detained at the Dombotombo police station. When relatives asked about Wellington's whereabouts, they were told that he had been in an accident and was at the Marondera provincial hospital. But the hospital said he had never been admitted.

Johannes said Wellington's body had "several bruises and a broken shoulder bone. The shoulder was detached and virtually hanging by the skin". The family said they never received a postmortem report.

  • In Kwekwe in the Midlands province, Blessing Matanda (29) was arrested on his way to work in October last year and held at the Munyati police post for questioning about a break-in at a shop and theft. On October 4, Matanda's wife visited him at the police station, where she was told that her husband was being interrogated by the criminal investigations department.

A day later, Matanda's brother was told Blessing had shot himself. At the time, the police said Matanda had smuggled a firearm into the cells.

But an independent pathologist, Dr Salvator Mapunda, who is contracted to the NGO, said it was highly unlikely that Matanda's death was suicidal.

The organisation faces many legal hurdles in its quest for justice. Under the Inquest Act, an individual is not allowed to instigate an investigation of a death in police custody. It is the prerogative of the police to report sudden death to a magistrate. The magistrate may take steps, if deemed necessary, to ascertain the cause of death or to bring the alleged murderers to justice.

"The problem we are facing is that the investigation of a death in police custody is the prerogative of the police, who are tasked with investigating themselves. Their actions are not open to public scrutiny, and they are not accessible to any aggrieved person because of statutory impediments," Zhuwarara said.

"Once in police custody, you are at the complete mercy of the state."

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