Hospital row over shackled patients

The National Medical and Dental Association (Namda) has said the shackling of patients was "incompatible with reasonable medical care". They have called on doctors to refuse to treat shackled patients. Medical staff at the hospital were meeting late yesterday to discuss the issue. Sheena Duncan of the Human Rights Commission told the Weekly Mail: "It is beyond speech that this should be happening in hospitals in South Africa" 

The Weekly Mail visited the hospital yesterday and found at least three patients cuffed by an ankle to the frame of their beds – though they were still weak from the effects of their protracted hunger strike, and though guarded by at least a dozen policemen at all times. At least one of them is being held without charge. The prisoners, held under the Internal Security Act or Emergency regulations, are allowed almost no movement. As the leg irons are attached to the bottom of the bed, the patients can sit up, but cannot lean back. Nor are they able to go for therapy or exercise – the latter being one of the few rights granted to detainees in law. The three have been in chains since Tuesday. Their only moments of relative freedom are when they ask to relieve themselves. They are then unchained and escorted to the toilet.

The detainees said that once every day, the cuffs are removed – only to be immediately snapped shut again over the other ankle. "Twelve hours one leg, twelve hours on the other," Charlie Malungu said, "It's hell in here. "I've been in here for six weeks already. Why should I suddenly want to run away now?" With Malungu was Simon Modise and Veli Zwane, the last hunger striker who only ended his fast at 11am yesterday after 27 days without food. (See separate story) They all looked weak and frail. Zwane was seen shuffling painfully, presumably on his way to the toilet. It was difficult to imagine that this man needed leg-irons to keep him from escaping. For all the precautions the police are taking, however, security was slack yesterday.

Weekly Mail reporters were able to saunter through the corridors nodding to the heavy police contingent in passing. Two guards, playing cards at the doorway, barely glanced up from their game as the reporters struck up a conversation with a detainee in his hospital bed. It was only when a senior officer came in on a round of inspection that the reporters were hustled outside. SA Prisons Services declined to comment, saying the prisoners were in police custody while in hospital. An SA Police representative said: "When persons have to be detained, this is usually done in a secure place, such as a cell. When, however, this is not possible, for example when such a person is undergoing hospital treatment alternative methods must be used to prevent escapes. "Where circumstances warrant it, leg-irons are used."

Amichas Soman, a Johannesburg lawyer representing Modise, said he was "deeply concerned". "Mr Modise was shot shortly before his arrest," he explained. ''He needs exercise and physiotherapy if he is to recover from his wounds. Now that he is shackled to the bed, my client is prevented from getting any exercise or therapy at all." Sheena Duncan added that Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok was "perhaps apprehensive about another exodus to consulates and embassies. "But he simply cannot allow treatment of this kind to be meted out to people while they are his responsibility.”


Duncan also issued a challenge to the Medical Association of South Africa to do something about the situation. Namda said doctors treating detainees should consult them as to whether they would consent to be treated while shackled. "We urge the doctors to demand that the shackles be removed, to refuse to treat patients while shackled, and to indicate in writing that the police and district surgeons are responsible" the statement said. Further it called on doctors to: "indicate in writing that the police and district surgeon are to be held responsible for the complications of non-treatment."

Namda also challenged the district surgeon to state publicly what his attitude, was towards the shackling of detainees. The district surgeon refused to comment, saying he would only discuss the matter with his department. Charlie Malungu, a 27-year-old from Vosloorus, was detained on November 7 last year and is being held under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act in connection with a Witbank bomb blast – Thandeka Gqubule & Ivor Powell

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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