Thursday, March 28, 2013

Painful Facts

Courts, the only institution we still trust, must tackle police torture

Torture has become routine within the Barberton police station and probably in the service as a whole.

In the early 2000s I wrote a story that landed me in the can – jail. This was a policeman’s revenge after I had published a story implicating him and a friend in the robbery and kidnapping of a sangoma.

But if this “good” officer thought he was teaching me a lesson, he was sadly mistaken. 

After the cell door had clanked shut, instead of being given the expected bad treatment by the others in the cell – you know, “hey give us a cigarette…” – I was treated to a whole night of valuable information on the torture methods of the then Barberton CID members.

Naturally, when other cops heard I’d been incarcerated, they were not too happy with their colleague, as they knew the awaiting-trial suspects would surely have briefed me on their own experiences. 

Ah! The power of being a well-known and respected journalist.

This incident came to mind recently with news that seven Barberton CID officers – yes seven – are to face assault charges after sharing their torture tactics with an armed robbery suspect. They are scheduled to stand trial on May 3.

Calling these guys CIDs (Criminal Investigation Department) is a misnomer. Instead they should be called STDs, (Suspect Torture Department).

Every year in Barberton at least two police officers face charges of assaulting suspects. What is more disturbing is that invariably they are let off on some technicality; not surprising, since their colleagues are the ones who take the complainant’s statement. 

Demonstrating just how brazen the cops have become, Melusi Mahlalela was being taken to court on the morning of September 22 (he’d been arrested the previous day on a charge of pointing a fire arm), when the detective escorting him to court, one Bheki Nkosi, was ordered by a colleague to bring Mahlalela upstairs instead  – “so he can tell us the truth”.

The upstairs truth session began at 9:30am and lasted until 1:30pm. During that time, Mahlalela says, seven policemen took turns torturing “the truth” out of him. 

Remember my friend Lieutenant-Colonel Dries Joubert? Yes, the one who denied that Barberton has a drug problem. Well, Joubert is alleged to have said “moer him!” when he walked in to check how the interrogation was coming along!

After his four-hour truth session, Mahlalela was dumped back in his cell. 

Downstairs, police officers, when alerted by other detainees to the “dying” man in their cell, said they’d call an ambulance, but it never came. Only when the evening shift came on duty was an ambulance summoned. A policeman was heard to remark: “There’s no way we’re having this guy die here on our shift!”  

No doubt the cops will deny his story, but how can one not believe it?  Maybe, for a start, the police should be asked to explain: how come Mahlalela did not appear before court on that September 22 morning – and instead ended up in hospital for a month-and-a-half? 

So, what can be done about a situation where torture has apparently become routine within the Barberton police and probably in the service as a whole?

The only way this country can hope to put a stop to police torture, is for the judiciary to step up and start prosecuting these rogue elements. Continually letting them off on technicalities is clearly sending the wrong message.

The courts seem to be the only institution that we can still trust. God knows, all others are plagued with problems. Home Affairs stands out as another example.

The courts really need to look beyond the statements submitted as evidence by the police. After all, why would someone wake up one day and decide to charge seven police officers with assault?

Why should we be concerned about this matter? If the police are not brought to book for their torturers’ ways, tomorrow it could be you or me instead of just the “criminal class”.

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