S. Africans Probe Detention Deaths
Eyewitnesses bolster case against police over abusive treatment of jailed black Africans
SEBOKENG, SOUTH AFRICA
WHEN Simon Mthimkulu's parents sent him on an errand in this strife-torn black township three weeks ago it was to be his last journey.
Several hours later, 16-year-old Mthimkulu lay on his back in a police lavatory, mortally wounded by a large rock that police dropped on him three times, according to an eyewitness.
"They kept on beating us and forced us to do exercises like squatting and push-ups," said 16-year-old Piet Sikalo Maseko, who was held by police at the same time as Mthimkulu and two other colleagues. "They accused us of burning policemen's houses and of having firearms, but we denied both charges."
Mr. Maseko describes in vivid detail his own treatment by police in which he was tortured by being whipped and having his head submerged in water. But while Maseko survived his beating, Mthimkulu did not.
Mthimkulu's death was not an unusual case. He is one of 200 black South Africans to have died in police custody in recent years, according to Jonathan Gluckman, a top Johannesburg pathologist. Dr. Gluckman, who conducts post-mortem examinations for the families of such victims, took the unusual step of going public July 26, alleging that the number of killings in police custody is "out of control."
The conclusive evidence in the case of Mthimkulu was the final straw that persuaded Gluckman to go public after more than a year of unsuccessful approaches to top government officials, including President Frederick de Klerk.
Mthimkulu's case was well documented because of eyewitnesses and because his mother managed to gain entry to the mortuary to identify her son's body despite police efforts to frustrate her.
Mthimkulu's case is now in the hands of human rights lawyers.
Last week, in another case, four policemen were suspended following the death of a black man in an Orange Free State police cell.
Abel Montoeli, a political activist who was found dead with internal injuries consistent with assault, was involved in litigation to sue the minister of Law and Order for an earlier police assault.
The suspension of the four policemen was the first action taken against police since Gluckman's revelations three weeks ago.
South African police list 170 people as having died in police custody in the past 18 months. Only six deaths have led to prosecution of policemen. In a further 12 cases, investigations against policemen were still under way. In 18 cases, police said they shot to prevent escape or in self-defense. They listed 49 deaths as suicide, 31 as occurring from natural causes, and 47 from unnatural causes where no foul play was supected.
Since Gluckman made his revelations, at least eight more people have died in police custody, prompting calls by human rights lawyers and anti-apartheid groups for a full probe by an independent commission of inquiry.
Police Commissioner Johan van der Merwe, who recently supplemented standing orders for the treatment of detainees, says he is anxious to change the situation.
"Even one death in detention is too many for us," he says.
Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel, who did not respond to Gluckman's earlier pleas to prevent further deaths, responded to the public revelations by ordering an internal police inquiry.
On Aug. 11, Mr. Kriel appointed six retired magistrates to carry out surprise checks on police stations nationwide. He was, he said, still studying a police report on the deaths.
But the move was immediately dismissed by human rights lawyers as inadequate.
"It is ludicrous to think that six magistrates are going to solve this problem," says lawyer Geoff Budlender, director of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) that provides legal aid with inquests and assists those bringing action against the state. Frustrated by scrutiny
"The only way to deal with this is to act visibly and investigate thoroughly and prosecute the offenders. The police must know that they no longer have the protection they have enjoyed in the past," he adds.
Some human rights lawyers believe that the spate of deaths in police custody since Gluckman's revelations may indicate a high level of frustration on the part of the police who have become the subject of sustained criticism.
"In the old order, violence against detainees was either aimed at extracting information under interrogation or it was gratuitous," a human rights lawyer says.
"Today, I think the killings are more a manifestation of the latter variety, but born of intense frustration and resentment which police are experiencing as a result of their rejection by the majority." Lawyers charge coverup
This week at the Goldstone Commission of Inquiry into the massacre of 43 people in the township of Boipatong in Vereeniging, police claimed that tape-recordings of 13 hours of police radio calls on the night of the massacre had been erased in a "technical" mishap.
The claim was widely interpreted by human rights lawyers as a coverup.
Earlier in the week, several township residents gave testimony regarding the presence of armored police vehicles accompanying the killers and the presence of disguised whites among the killers.
The Sunday Star newspaper of Johannesburg yesterday called for Mr. De Klerk to take drastic action to clean up the police.
"The reputation of the police is at its lowest in history," the newspaper said in an editorial.
"No facile public relations exercise will help. There is only one way to fix it. De Klerk must act against the people right at the top. Unless he does, the rot will continue."