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Refugees ‘beaten, shocked’ by metro cops

Resource type: News

The Star (South Africa) |

The Aids Law Project, the Legal Resources Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights are Atlantic grantees.

by Louise Flanagan

Destitute people who were arrested while sleeping outside the Methodist Church in central Joburg a week ago say police beat them, insulted them, gave them electric shocks and stole their belongings.

Joburg metro police and SAPS members arrested 358 homeless people, mostly Zimbabweans, late at night on July 3. They were due to appear in court last Monday on charges of loitering, but were released when prosecutors declined to take the matter further.

After their release, some gave statements to the Aids Law Project, the Legal Resources Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights. Statements by 28 were shown to The Star.

Nine said they were given electric shocks from hand-held Tasers and three others said they saw others being shocked. Many claimed assault.

One Zimbabwean described how he was woken by metro police while sleeping on the pavement around 11pm.

“They shouted that we should go back to Zimbabwe, we are making a mess here, we should not stay in South Africa, Mugabe is in Zimbabwe and not in South Africa,” he said, adding that the officers used the isiZulu word ‘shaya’, which means beat him or her up.

“One grabbed me out of the blankets, hauling me up by holding the clothes at the back of my neck and severely bruising my throat. I asked to collect my things but he refused. He pushed me. The other two grabbed my arms and started to carry me off. They also shook us and searched with their hands in our pockets.

“I said I needed to collect my shoes and my bag, but they refused, shouting that I would run away. When I asked again they kicked me in the ribs, then sprayed me with a spray that made my eyes water and I couldn’t see.”

He added that he lost his job because he couldn’t get to work last Monday.

Another man stated: “They said ‘Move out, we don’t want you here, follow our orders. Go to that truck.’ Their language was insulting. They said ‘You Zimbabweans are a problem’.

“They used force and shoved us. I wasn’t beaten or injured but I saw others being threatened, beaten and hit with electrical prods.”

A third man said metro police assaulted him.

“I picked up my bag to run when a police officer grabbed me and zapped me with a stunner. He told me to drop my bag and take off my shoes. I told him I needed the bag and the shoes, so he zapped me again and I let go,” he said.

They were taken to Joburg Central police station.

“They forced us to line up and sign papers, using sticks that administered electric shocks if we questioned the charge or refused. We had no chance to read what we signed, although copies were given to us later, a charge sheet that said we were ‘loitering’.”

The second man said police at Joburg Central told him not to speak English, which left him unable to communicate.

The third man said there were about 120 of them in the cell at Joburg Central.

“There were two women, the rest of us were men. There were a few young guys of 15 or 16. Two people seemed mentally disturbed. I was very shocked … I did not know it was an offence to be poor.”

Several said they were not told they could have a lawyer, others that they could see lawyers later.

“While I was standing in line the police officers took the biscuits I had in my bag and ate them without giving me anything. I saw them doing this to many people,” said one.

One South African man saw others being assaulted.

“I saw the police shock three people. One fell unconscious and stayed unconscious for more than five minutes.

“The police told us to go back to Zimbabwe. They hit me. I showed them my green South African identity document and they tore it.

“They slapped me on the right hand side of my face and showed me the shocking stick.”

The group also said they were not fed properly.

“None of the police ever told me why I was being arrested. No one explained anything to us. We were just loaded onto vehicles and the police were pushing and beating people to get them in, but they didn’t hit me,” said one man.

“They should have told us politely. The violence seems like hatred of foreigners, like we are people from nowhere. I don’t understand it, I am not a foreigner in Africa, not like I would be in the United Kingdom.”

Senior Superintendent Wayne Minnaar said the metro police did not manhandle the vagrants and that they were treated “like any other person will be treated” when arrested. “That is, they were taken to a police station, their fingerprints were taken and they were placed in cells.”

SAPS spokesperson Eugene Opperman said the refugees should lay a charge if they were tortured.

“But the whole operation was done by the metro police. It was their operation, but we supported them in some ways. It is very easy to make the allegations, but it is difficult to prove them,” he said.