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South Africa's security laws draw protests

South Africa's tough security laws are under fire after the death of yet another prisoner while in police custody. Tembuyise Simon Mndawe ''apparently hanged himself,'' according to a statement by the commissioner of police, Gen. Mike Geldenhuys.

Mr. Mndawe had been arrested last month under South Africa's internal security act, which permits security prisoners to be held indefinitely, without access to legal representation, family, or a doctor of their choice.

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He was the 56th prisoner detained under security laws to have died while in police custody, according to the Detainees' Parents Support Committee, which monitors the treatment of security prisoners.

The death raises questions about the effectiveness of the code of conduct adopted late last year by the police on dealing with persons held under security laws. While some welcomed the code as a tacit admission by the police that security prisoners needed greater protection, human rights advocates generally were dissatisfied.

Critics of the code were unhappy with its vague language and provisions that would appear to give the police plenty of loopholes for ignoring some of the code's requirements. Human-rights advocates were also alarmed at the absence of any outside means of enforcing the code. The police are left solely in charge of upholding its provisions.

But the crux of the criticism of South Africa's security laws is that they place prisoners under the complete control of the police.

The system not only denies fundamental legal rights, say its critics, but makes it possible for the security police to use torture and other inhumane methods of extracting information and confessions.

Allegations of torture by former security prisoners are widespread. Last year the Detainees' Parents Support Committee submitted a report to Minister of Law and Order Louis Le Grange containing statements from 70 former security prisoners, alleging a basic pattern of maltreatment, ranging from intensive interrogation to beatings and use of electric shock.

Last year's inquest into the death of trade unionist Neil Aggett while in police custody included testimony from a number of former security prisoners who alleged serious maltreatment by police interrogators. But the police were exonerated in the Aggett case largely because the judge found the police testimony more credible than that of the former prisoners.

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Minister Le Grange has gone on the offensive against the Detainees' Parents Support Committee. He recently labeled them a ''support organization'' for communists and the banned African National Congress.

Mndawe was an alleged insurgent and when arrested was in the possession of a Soviet-made submachine gun, ammunition, and African National Congress literature , according to the police. The police also said he made a confession a day after his arrest, but had not yet been charged or brought to trial.

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