Torture of suspects, prisoners on the rise

03 April 2014 - 02:00 By Leonie Wagner
SAPS vehicle. File photo.
SAPS vehicle. File photo.
Image: Reuben Goldberg

Tied to a chair, with a plastic bag over his head and a rope around his neck, a man is electrocuted, the shocks causing deep scorches on his skin.

A Klerksdorp man, accused of theft, claims this was how he was tortured by police officers.

His is one of many cases of brutal treatment of prisoners, suspects and young black men, allegedly committed by police officers and prison warders, according to a series of reports released by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation yesterday.

The centre's shock finding is that torture is on the rise in democratic South Africa.

"Torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment remains a major human rights violation in post-apartheid South Africa," the author of one of the reports, Malose Langa, said.

Langa's investigation involved a five-year study based on information from torture victims, police officers, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services.

The study revealed that, from 2007 to 2011, there were:

  • 200 unnatural deaths in prison;
  • More than 6000 assaults by prison officials;
  • 1778 cases of assault by police officers; and
  • 89 instances of torture by police officers.

In 2011, there were 421 cases of assault and 41 of torture.

The latest report by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, for 2012-2013, gives a combined torture and assault figure of 4181 cases reported to the directorate.

Torture methods included suffocation, genital electrocution, submersion in water, hanging and beatings, often resulting in head injuries.

The research highlighted psychological torture, such as long periods of isolation, leading to emotional stress, pain and even suicide.

The reports said that there was under-reporting of torture.

The number of civil suits against the police is on the rise, with an estimated R8-billion in claims in the period under review.

Some of the reasons cited for the brutality were police wanting to assert their power and to dispel the public view that they are "too soft on criminals".

At the launch of the reports yesterday, Human Rights Commission member Danny Titus said the commission had been told by one police officer: "If I'm a plumber, you'll see the grease and dirt on my hands; so if I'm a police officer, you must expect that I will have blood on my hands."

Langa said punishment of police officers appeared to be "lenient".

According to the reports, many perpetrators were given written warnings or fines of less than R1000.