South Africa must do everything to prevent torture by the police

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tied and dragged after a police car, Mido Macia, a young taxi driver, died of his injuries at the Daveyton Police Station on Tuesday 26 February. Mido Macia became the latest victim in a shocking series of assault, torture and death linked to police custody in South Africa.

The National Commissioner of Police has taken swift action to charge and suspend the alleged police perpetrators, sending an important signal that this extreme police brutality is not tolerated. Prosecution of perpetrators of police abuse is a crucial component to dealing with impunity, but much more needs to be done to prevent such acts of torture and ill-treatment from taking place.

The Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) has long advocated for South Africa to adopt and implement the UN torture prevention treaty – the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).  South Africa committed to join this treaty already in 2006, but has not yet taken the final step to ratification. By ratifying the OPCAT states agree to establish a national, independent torture prevention body (NPM), to conduct independent and regular visits to all places where people are held in detention, including by the police. This oversight, put in place to prevent torture and other ill-treatment, includes any situation or place where a person is deprived of liberty.

Only last year the Independent Police Investigative Directorate received 720 notifications of deaths caused by police action in South Africa. More than 230 of these deaths occurred in police custody. The brutality of the South African police came into the international spotlight when police opened fire and killed 34 striking miners at Marikana in August 2012. Detained protesters later claimed they were tortured by the police, to extract “confessions.”

While the Independent Police Investigative Directorate has the mandate to investigate deaths in custody and other allegations of assault and rape by police officers, it does not have a mandate to prevent it from happening. There are no regular oversight visits to police stations.

In light of the recent tragedies, South Africa needs to urgently take action on its commitment to ratify the OPCAT and to put in place a system to monitor all aspects of police detention -  vehicles, court cells, and while detainees are taken out on investigation. Detainees are often particularly vulnerable to abuse and violation of their rights in these circumstances.  

It is only through the establishment of an independent NPM that illegal or harmful practices can be identified, properly addressed and corrected by the authorities. NPMs have access to all detained persons who they can interview in private. Furthermore NPMs can oversee the procedures of arrest, which, in the case of Macia, would have prevented the brutal abuse that was witnessed by the public and the rest of the world.

The APT therefore recommends that all police transfers are open to expert scrutiny and that the Government of South Africa should move to immediate ratification of the OPCAT and adoption of an anti-torture law.