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Immigration officer slammed by high court judges after Ethiopian asylum seeker attempts suicide

Immigration officer slammed by high court judges after Ethiopian asylum seeker attempts suicide
The Western Cape High Court has condemned the ‘repugnant’ behaviour of a senior immigration officer. (Illustration: Lisa Nelson)

Family of Tsegaye Esyas says he was duped into confessing that he was in South Africa illegally.

A senior immigration official has come under fire for her “deplorable” conduct in handling the matter of an Ethiopian citizen who attempted to commit suicide after being duped into confessing that he was in South Africa illegally.

Western Cape High Court judges James Lekhuleni and Patricia Goliath have set aside the admission of guilt fine paid by Tsegaye Esyas and ordered that he be refunded the R1,000.

They referred the matter back to the Paarl Magistrate’s Court to be heard by another magistrate “for him to have a fair hearing” with a competent interpreter, and ordered that immigration officer, Annelise van Dyk, be taken off the case.

“This kind of behaviour from a high-ranking government official is repugnant and objectionable to the expected tenets and attributes of a person in her position and to the Batho Pele principles,” the judges said.

Esyas launched the urgent application to set aside the admission of guilt fine he paid on 10 April this year.

The papers were served on the magistrate who first heard his matter and Van Dyk, but they did not oppose the application, hence Esyas’ version of events was unchallenged.

Read the judgment here.

Judge Lekhuleni, who penned the judgment, said Esyas is an Ethiopian citizen who does not speak any English. He arrived in South Africa earlier this year, fleeing his birth country because of political unrest. He came to seek asylum and to be with his two brothers and other family members, who were all duly documented.

In his affidavit, Esyas explained his attempts to begin the process of obtaining his own documentation. He explained that the first time he was sent away because the system was offline. He went back a few days later, but was told only the first 24 asylum seekers were dealt with every day.

The following day he slept on the pavement outside the offices to be part of the first 24. However, they were all turned away due to rolling blackouts.

In the interim, he obtained work as a “till operator” at a shop.

Before he could make it back to the immigration offices for the fourth time, he and his employer were arrested. He appeared in court, but the matter was postponed for about a week for an interpreter. When he appeared in court again on 10 April, there was still no interpreter.

Esyas said he could not understand anything that was happening but the matter seemed to be proceeding.

He said Van Dyk went outside the courtroom and approached his family, asking if they had money to pay bail, which his brother confirmed. She then instructed his brother to remain outside the courtroom. Later, his brother accompanied a police officer to the cash hall and paid R1,000, believing it was for bail.

However, when he returned to the courtroom with the receipt, he was told Van Dyk had taken Esyas away and he would remain in custody.

The police officer explained that the money was not for bail, but was an admission of guilt fine, and Van Dyk could now keep him in custody, pending deportation.

The family believed they had been “blatantly misled” by Van Dyk.

Esyas said Van Dyk fetched him from police cells and took him to her office where she was “extremely hostile and racist towards him”, treating him like an animal and trying to force him to sign documents which he did not understand.

“Upon returning to police cells, the applicant felt he had no options. He thought his life was now in detention until deportation back to the political unrest in Ethiopia, and that made his life not worth living. There was nobody to hear his plight. He attempted to hang himself. The police officials, however, caught him trying to take his own life and he was then moved to an isolated cell and placed on suicide watch,” Judge Lekhuleni said.

However, Van Dyk continued to insist that he sign the documents.

“The applicant’s attorney of record has also spoken to police officials at Paarl police station, who confirmed that the conduct of Ms van Dyk was a normal occurrence. He was informed that she treats people in this manner to threaten and demean them,” the judge said.

He said it was difficult to fathom on what basis the magistrate had been satisfied that Esyas was admitting guilt, when he could not understand the proceedings or communicate with the court. This was “highly irregular”.

“It is incontestable that the applicant did not understand as the proceedings were not explained in a language that he understands. In my view, this irregularity is so gross that it vitiated the entire proceedings,” Judge Lekhuleni said.

Regarding Van Dyk, he said the allegations against her were “so egregious”, it was surprising that they had not been challenged at all.

“Her conduct, as explained by the applicant, is deplorable and must be condemned. It has been alleged that she treated the applicant with disdain and inhumanely, so much so that it led to his attempted suicide.

“It has also been alleged that she does this to force immigrants to sign documents under duress … in my opinion, a note of caution must be sounded to Ms van Dyk to desist from such unacceptable behaviour,” Judge Lekhuleni said. DM

First published by GroundUp.

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