South Africa

St Albans prison: Enter the era of SA’s torture prosecutions

By Carolyn Raphaely 2 April 2014

A recent prison-wide orgy of mass-beatings, electric-shock, torture and assaults, involving 200 inmates of Port Elizabeth’s St Albans prison, could lead to the first prosecutions in terms of SA’s new torture legislation. By CAROLYN RAPHAELY.

The assaults and torture, which allegedly occurred during a midnight search for contraband last month (2 March), included inmates being forced to lie naked on the ground in a long human chain with their noses in the anus of the inmate in front of them.

This might mean that Department of Correctional Services (DCS) Eastern Cape Regional Commissioner Nkosinathi Breakfast, Area Commissioner Mandla Jam and about 50 members of DCS’ Emergency Security Team (EST) involved in the search may be the first State officials to be charged with torture in the new SA. Prior to the promulgation of The Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act in July last year, torture was not a crime in SA.

This is an opportunity to test the new torture legislation and international criminal law applicable to torture,” said Port Elizabeth human rights lawyer Egon Oswald, who is representing more than 100 affected St Albans inmates in a criminal case, as well as a civil claim for torture -related damages. Breakfast told the WJP that he and Jam were both present in the prison during the “routine search operation.”

Inmate Nceba Siko, still limping a week after being shocked twice on his testicles by a woman warder using a hand-held device, said that he and his cellmates were never told what EST members were searching for: “They were just shouting down, down, down. The whole cell was forced to lie naked on the floor with their face in the other inmate’s anus. While they were lying down, the members were standing on their backs and beating them with batons and shocking them with their shields. Jam was there laughing…”

I don’t know how long I lay there (on the cement outside the cell) with my face in that guy’s anus. They finished with us after 2am,” added a bruised and battered Jeandre Nel. “Some of those guys were under the influence of alcohol. They were shouting that we are dogs. One stamped on me and twisted his boot into my ribs. He said, ‘I’ll squash you like a bug, like a cockroach.’ In the end, they found nothing in our cell.”

Other inmates reported being “beaten in the balls with a baton from behind,” being beaten under the soles of their feet and being “klapped in the face and moered.” One wheelchair-bound inmate with spinal injuries, who did not want his name published for fear of reprisals, said he was forced to lie naked face-down on his bed and beaten repeatedly while Jam allegedly watched.

A dread-locked Zwelandile Khumalo reported that he and another inmate were tied together by their dreads: “I was forced to bark like a dog. If they say do (sic) a chicken or cat sound, or roar like a lion and you don’t do what they say, they beat you. People were badly injured, some had broken ribs, some were shocked with shock-shields and people were deeply hurt inside. They found nothing illegal in my possession.”

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Photo: Zwelandile Khumalo

Reports such as these have taken a while to surface since Oswald was forced to bring a High Court application to obtain access to his clients and photograph their injuries – including bruises, fractures, broken bones and missing teeth. Inmates said they were not permitted to see a doctor despite numerous and repeated requests. “All they gave us was Panamol,” said Nel. “And most of us, it didn’t help. No one got proper medical examination or x-rays.”

In addition to the assaults, many inmates reported trashed and stolen personal possessions. “If they do find illegal stuff, they’re supposed to confiscate it and charge you for the illegal item,” Nel added. “But that’s not what they do. They robbed me of two rings and a chain. They were things I got from my father after he died.”

According to Oswald, the latest St Albans operation was a reaction to the viral Waterkloof Two video which showed convicted killers Frikkie du Preez and Christoffel Becker allegedly drinking alcohol and using cellphones in Pretoria’s Kgosi Mampuru prison. “No, it was not,” Breakfast said. “We have normal and surprise searches to ensure inmates do not bring dagga or cellphones into our facilities. This was a routine search operation carried out in terms of normal policy procedure.”

Oswald says he handles cases like this on an on-going basis: “I’ve issued numerous demands against the Minister on behalf of alleged victims of torture. In addition to these St Albans inmates, I’m representing 231 inmates involved in a very similar incident which took place in 2005. I’m also acting in a mass-beatings case involving about 70 inmates that occurred in March last year and another matter that took place in June.”

The 2005 mass-beatings at St Albans resulted in former St Albans inmate Bradley McCallum lodging a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) in Geneva alleging gross human rights abuses by State officials. McCallum told the UNHRC how he was raped by a warder with a baton, shocked, beaten and also forced to lie naked in a human chain with his nose in the anus of a fellow inmate.

After ignoring five requests by the UNHRC to respond to McCallum’s allegations, South Africa was found guilty of human rights violations. “Even so, torture, assaults and beatings continue unabated and organised searches often degenerate into beating slug fests,” Oswald noted. In May, Oswald is representing the first four of 231 St Albans’ plaintiffs – Bradley McCallum, Bafo Dhuru, Xolani Siko and Simphiwe Mbena – who are suing the Minister of Correctional Services for torture-related damages in the Port Elizabeth High Court.

Nearly nine years after the first St Albans incident, DCS Ministerial spokesman Logan Maistry told the WJP that “the investigation into the McCallum case by the relevant agencies is at an advanced stage.” To date, none of the 60 – 80 implicated warders have yet been disciplined.

Though the legislative framework presents no major obstacles to holding state officials accountable for gross human rights violations,” notes Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative’s Lukas Muntingh, “officials are rarely prosecuted and convicted for assault, torture and actions resulting in the death of criminal suspects and prisoners. Senior management seems more interested in covering up crimes than holding their staff accountable. Prosecution is so rare that a situation of de facto impunity results.”

In spite of thousands of complaints of assaults recorded by DCS, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) and the SA Human Rights Commission, Muntingh says that there hasn’t been a single prosecution of a correctional official implicated in the death of a detainee in the last three years.

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Photo: The photo of prisoner’s mouth shows teeth knocked out

According to Maistry, DCS does not keep records of the number of officials prosecuted in criminal cases and can only provide figures of officials who have been disciplined internally: “More than 3,000 correctional officials were charged with misconduct and corruption in the 2013/14 financial year. Two hundred and fifty were dismissed and demoted while 2,850 were subjected to misconduct and disciplinary proceedings.”

Now Oswald is investigating utilising international judicial institutions such as the International Criminal Court to ensure that justice is served: “The latest St Albans assaults are indicative of a widespread culture of impunity amongst DCS officials, contempt for the Constitution and the Constitutional rights of prisoners.

Sanctions from international human rights bodies have had little or no discernible effects to date. Hopefully, the sanction of the international criminal court may be more effective in driving change, modifying behaviour on the ground and will carry more weight with the powers that be…”

Last week 20 organisations – including the WJP, Lawyers for Human Rights and Just Detention International – issued a statement calling on government, the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) and the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to conduct a swift investigation into the raid, to ensure a transparent reporting mechanism, that anyone complicit is held accountable and that a criminal investigation is conducted.

Meantime, Breakfast remains adamant that he is “not personally aware” of assaults, torture and beatings that may have occurred during the search operation, but says he is aware of inmates’ complaints which are being investigated: “I led the operation but didn’t see what they were doing in the units or the cells. I was in the office,” he says. DM

Carolyn Raphaely is a senior journalist with the Wits Justice Project (WJP) which investigates miscarriages of justice related to the criminal justice system. The project is located in the Journalism department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

*Criminal charges have been laid at the Kabega Park police station and an official complaint lodged with JICS and the SAHRC.

Main photo: Prisoners’ injuries: baton marks on inner thighs (l), bruised buttocks (c), boot marks on ribs (r).

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