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FXI welcomes opening of trial in Landless Peoples' Movement torture case

(FXI/IFEX) - The following is an FXI press release:

FXI welcomes commencement of trial in Landless Peoples' Movement torture case

The Freedom of Expression Institute welcomes the fact that the trial of Superintendent Simangaliso Simelane following complaints of assault and torture by three activists of the Landless Peoples' Movement (LPM), has finally commenced. The alleged incident took place on the 15 April 2004.

The FXI believes that this case has profound implications for the freedom of political expression in South Africa, as incidents of torture and harassment of political activists who are critical of government policy will have a chilling effect on the right to dissent in the country. This incident suggests that members of the police are willing to resort to apartheid-era violence against political activists and critics of government policy (in this case, the government's painfully slow land reform policy). If such actions were to become the norm and go unpunished, then free political activity in South Africa would gradually become impossible.

However, the FXI believes that this matter must be dealt with speedily to send a message to the police that torture will not be tolerated under any circumstances, especially given the fact that South Africa has emerged from an apartheid-era culture of 'political torture' in jails. Such a culture cannot be allowed to emerge again, and in this regard it is disturbing to note local and international watchdog organizations noting increasing incidents of 'democracy-era' torture. However these incidents have been confined to criminal interrogations, whereas this incident involved the alleged use of torture to extract information from political activists about the activities of the Landless Peoples' Movement. The fact that the policeman who is being prosecuted is from the Crime Intelligence Unit is a chilling aspect of this incident, as it reminds the Institute of the dark days when the South African intelligence services were used to extract information from political activists about their anti-apartheid activities.

Such abuse by the intelligence services cannot be allowed to happen again, and unfortunately recent incidents in the country around investigations of protest action have raised the spectre of such abuse.

However, the FXI is disappointed by what it considers to be the incomplete nature of the investigation that has led to the prosecution by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). The initial investigation was undertaken by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), who were called in to investigate immediately after the investigation. While the LPM members alleged that there were many police involved, and one of them was named in a statement to the ICD after the incident, only Simelane has been prosecuted. We also note the fact that the ICD was not successful in organizing a line up of police officers for the LPM members to identify their assailants, and that these actions could have resulted in speedier and more comprehensive action on the case.

The three LPM activists who alleged the assault and torture were part of a group of LPM members that were arrested as they attempted to hold a demonstration on the day of South Africa's national elections, and charged with contravening the Electoral Act (No. 73 of 1998).

The LPM members subsequently alleged that police officers subjected them to acts of physical and psychological violence including assaults, the lobbying of tear gas canisters into the closed vans transporting them to the police cells, and verbal abuse. They also stated that at around midnight of the same day while they were in police custody, members of the Crime Intelligence Unit took three of them away from their cells, and repeatedly tortured two of them using physical blows, strangulation and suffocation. They alleged the torture took place during an interrogation where police officers questioned them about the LPM, its sources of funding, its leaders and objectives. They further alleged that the police officers forced rubber tubes over their mouths several times, leading to them blacking out, and warned them against being seen in any informal settlements as the police 'knew where they lived'.

The ICD apparently completed their investigations on 29 September 2004, and recommended to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) that a police officer be charged with assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, assault common and intimidation, and that he be subject to disciplinary proceedings by the management of the South African Police Services (SAPS).

On Tuesday, 25 January 2005, the DPP decided to prosecute the police officer on two counts of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm and one count of assault common. The ICD announced at the time that other members of the SAPS may be prosecuted in due course, yet there has been no indication yet of this taking place. The FXI believes that it is not sufficient for the alleged 'ringleader' to be prosecuted; rather, all those involved must be brought to book, otherwise the increasingly disturbing culture of torture in South African jails may continue.

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