Police violence against suspects still rife

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) has found that the continuing torture of people in custody is a major blemish on the record of the police force. Its report says the torture allegedly used by some officers is a hangover from apartheid.

It also says that deaths in custody have not received the attention such an important issue demands.

Police killings have escalated 50% since last year, from 281 to 423. The vast majority of killings are not deliberately unlawful, and most killings are related to the performance of police duties, says the report.

Since its inception in 1997, the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) has reported about 300 deaths annually as a result of police action.

The issue was in the news again last week when one of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s relatives, who is suspected of stealing her jewellery, claimed he was suffocated ‘by a filthy blue glove” and subjected to electric shocks by Germiston’s organised crime unit.

The ICD is probing the same unit over torture complaints by union members arrested during the recent municipal strike.

In 1997/98, the ICD investigated 68 cases of torture. This dropped to 22 in 2002/03 and 26 three years ago. In total, 269 cases of torture were reported between 1997 and 2004.

The report highlights the alleged torture and assault of Landless People’s Movement members arrested in April 2004 for illegally protesting on election day. The allegations included repeated suffocation with rubber tubing and beatings.

A Protea crime intelligence unit superintendent was acquitted of torture and assault in the case in 2005, and the ICD said a lack of police cooperation had hampered the identification of culprits.

Explaining the persistence of torture, the report notes the pressure on police to deal with crime, shortcomings in the disciplinary system and an apparent tolerance of abuse among certain managers.

It adds: ‘A high-crime environment is likely to contribute to public opinion being increasingly permissive of abuses by the police. Unless there is investment by police leadership in addressing issues to do with the conduct of the police in a decisive way, widespread corruption, human rights violations and other criminality and abuses by the police are likely to continue.”

In April this year, East Rand school principal Nick Karvelas was arrested for ‘hindering the police” after he objected to police beating up robbers in front of a pre-school class. But the robbers’ victim, Brian Gordon Davis, praised the police for doing a ‘fantastic job”. Other members of the public also stood up for the policemen in question.

The absence of an active torture monitoring system is of concern to the CSVR, which says that other countries had shown torture could largely be eliminated from policing. The Prevention of Torture Policy served more as a public relations exercise than a concrete deterrent.

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