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New law protecting S. African prisoners seen as victory. . .though a small one

After at least 47 deaths and mounting allegations of torture, the South African government has grudgingly conceded that prisoners held under this country's tough security laws need greater protection.

South Africa's minister of law and order, Louis Le Grange, has announced a code of conduct for security police aimed at assuaging criticism at home and abroad over treatment of people detained here. Critics say South African security laws have become a handy tool for bludgeoning political opposition and have resulted in widespread violations of basic human rights.

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The code of conduct - the first of its kind in South Africa - was welcomed by human-rights advocates as a victory of sorts. For the first time there was official acknowledgement that the security police need reigning in.

The code itself does not offer much real improvement, critics of South Africa's security laws say. They say the provisions of the code are vague, filled with loopholes, and do nothing to open up the practices of the security police to outside scutiny.

Under the new system, ''Police are just policing the police,'' says Johan Van Der Vyver, president of the Lawyers for Human Rights organization.

For many, the new controls are not much comfort since they do nothing to alter the sweeping powers of the security police. The law here allows for police to hold people indefinitely, without being charged. Critics of the security laws feel this lack of legal restraint on the police is what leads to abuses of prisoners.

Already this year two prisoners held by the security police have died in their cells, bringing to at least 47 the total number of such deaths in South Africa. A lengthy inquest into the cause of death of one - white trade unionist Neil Aggett - has brought numerous allegations of police torture and abuse by former security prisoners.

The new code of conduct follows the notable failure of the South African security police to find legal grounds for prosecution for more than a handful of the many persons detained in a major crackdown late last year. Minister Le Grange's justification at the time was that the detentions would demonstrate a ''conspiracy'' in the making. But the vast majority of those detained were eventually released without being charged.

The code of conduct requires that: ''A detainee shall at all times be treated in a humane manner with proper regard for the rules of decency and shall not in any way be assaulted or otherwise ill-treated or subjected to any form of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.''

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Mr. Van Der Vyver, a professor of law at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the vagueness of terms like ''humane manner,'' ''decency,'' and ''inhuman or degrading'' allows for too much leeway for interpretation by the police. He is particularly concerned since South Africa has shown it does not have the same standards as most Western nations regarding these concepts. And even where the code is specific, there are often loopholes allowing for noncompliance, he says.

For example, the requirement that prisoners shall not be assaulted could be circumvented by interrogators who loosely interpret another clause that provides for instances ''where force has of necessity to be used.''

The most fundamental criticism of the code is that possible violations will be subject only to internal police investigation. And such cases will often hang on the word of the detainee versus the word of the police interrogator.

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