/ 6 April 2009

Cops in torture death probe

The Western Cape’s top crime-fighting unit stands accused of beating to death a 24-year-old Gugulethu man and trying to cover up the incident by claiming he leapt from a moving police vehicle.

Fifteen members of the South African Police Service’s provincial organised crime unit, based in Bellville South, are being investigated over the murder of Sidwel Mkwambi.

The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) said it expects to lay formal charges soon.

The case has opened a can of worms. At least 14 further cases of serious assault and torture involving members of the unit are being investigated.

Mkwambi died in February this year after he and a friend, Siyabulela Ndlovu, were arrested in connection with an incident in which two policemen were shot and injured in New Crossroads.

According to a pathologist’s report he died of injuries consistent with ”multiple blunt trauma” to the body.

The Mail & Guardian understands that the report indicates that he could not have sustained the injuries by jumping from a moving car.

A senior police officer who asked not to be named told the M&G the unit ”has been operating for a long time way above the law”.

”They’ve become a little Vlakplaas. We’ll nail them — the police can’t operate as a torture force, extracting information from people.”

According to Likhaya Makana, the lawyer representing Mkwambi’s family, the head of the unit, Superintendent Piet Viljoen, told the family a week before the death that ”we will kill your son” if he failed to hand himself over.

In a statement Ndlovu said he last saw Mkwambi being dragged down a passage in the organised crime unit’s Bellville South offices by unit members.

”Mkwambi was limp and didn’t move — they were dragging him,” Ndlovu said.

Said Makana: ”As we understand it, the two men were interrogated in two separate offices and were tortured and beaten.

”Then they were told to shower because they had soiled themselves during the interrogation. That was the last time Ndlovu saw Mkwambi alive.”

In his statement Ndlovu said the two suspects were repeatedly beaten with fists, handcuffs, the butt of a gun and a sjambok while being questioned.

The medical certificate shows that after Ndlovu’s release from custody, his upper abdomen was painful and he had ”generalised body pain”.

The certificate also records his allegation that he was ”beaten with handcuffs, fists and the handle of a gun”.

Ndlovu’s alleged torture is one of 14 cases involving the unit that the ICD is investigating.

Viljoen refused to comment on the case beyond saying: ”I can tell you that nobody of my unit did any-thing wrong.”

Unit members who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity insisted that Mkwambi was a ”serious and violent” gangster who belonged to the ”Young Soldiers” or ”Amasoldiers” gang.

He had not only shot two members of the unit in January he was also involved in numerous criminal activities in Gugulethu, Nyanga and New Crossroads.

Mkwambi had apparently been on the run from the police for two months before his arrest.

Unit members said Mkwambi was already bleeding from the nose when he jumped out of the police car because of the circumstances of his arrest.

The ICD said in a statement on Thursday that it had started probing the Mkwambi case after being ”informed about a body of a male person found in a police vehicle that had been parked outside the Tygerberg forensic pathology services”.

The M&G understands that another case the ICD is investigating is that of a Young Soldiers’ leader allegedly tortured by the same unit weeks before Mkwambi’s death.

He is said to have been stripped, kicked and had a plastic bag placed over his head while unit members tried to extract information about Mkwambi’s whereabouts.