Shoot to kill in the dock

2012-06-23 17:09

On Thursday former police chief Bheki Cele walked quietly into the courtroom to support 18 members of the Cato Manor serious and violent crimes unit who were applying for bail the day after being arrested for 14 alleged hit squad killings.

The detectives and their supporters broke into applause.

Cele’s a man with a well-developed sense of the theatrical.

He acknowledged them and sat directly behind his former foot soldiers, close enough to lay a hand on a shoulder. “I may no longer be your General, but I’ve still got your backs,” he said.

It was right that Cele – commissioner from June 2009 till the day before the Cato Manor arrest warrants were signed on June 13 – took a seat where he did.

Cato Manor commander Lieutenant Colonel Willie Olivier and his men are the ones sitting in the dock for the 14 killings, but the “shoot first” ethos that was the hallmark of Cele’s tenure is very much on trial here as well.

The day went on. Cele stayed in his seat – he was back on Friday. The wife of one of the accused remarked: “It’s really good that the General came here. This is about shoot to kill.”

The state’s case – outlined in some detail by investigators called to oppose bail and prosecutor Raymond Mathenjwa’s provisional indictment – reflects not dissimilar thinking.

In essence, it claims that the unit adopted a shoot-to-kill policy against armed robbery suspects, first taking out Thabo Msimango in June 2008 while he lay on the ground after “jumping or being pushed” from his fourth floor balcony.

The killings continued, with suspects allegedly being ambushed and shot dead. Weapons were allegedly planted on victims, with the senior officers sanitising crime scenes and ensuring investigations came to nothing.

The last victim was Qinisani Gwala – a case of mistaken identity – who was shot dead last September. Gwala, like 16-year-old Kwazi Ndlovu, who was killed in April 2010, was not a suspect.

The state has applied the common purpose principle: every unit member involved in every fatal operation was equally responsible for the alleged murders, whether they pulled the trigger, planted a weapon or not.

The 18 face an additional 57 charges including attempted murder, robbery, defeating the ends of justice and assault.

Once a high court date is set on August 24, a clearer picture of how – and how high up – the decision to turn vigilante was allegedly taken should emerge.

The state says it will add 16 murder charges in a couple of weeks, relating to ATM bombers and taxi hitmen allegedly taken out by the Cato Manor squad. To borrow from National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga after court: “Anything can happen in this case”.


Mathenjwa, an expatriate Durbanite brought from Pretoria to boss the case, spent the two-day bail application painting a picture of a rogue police unit terrorising communities with “atrocities” that went mysteriously undetected by the powers that be in KwaZulu-Natal.

From Thursday morning until bail of R5 000 each was granted late on Friday afternoon, it was clear that while this was only a bail application, the prosecution was going for a show of strength.

Investigators played equally hardball all week, rejecting repeated offers by the 18 to surrender at their offices rather than being arrested at their homes with cameras in tow.

Magistrate Sharon Marks repeatedly cut Mathenjwa short, admonishing him for “going too far” in arguing the merits of the state’s case rather than addressing whether or not the accused met the criteria to be granted bail.

These were two gruelling days. There were the verbally aggressive gems such as “if the witnesses survive I’m sure most of the accused will go down”.

There were the massive numbers of angry, scared family members, friends and supporters scrumming for space to even squeeze against a wall.

The aircon was rubbish. There were uniformed heavies with R5 rifles inside the courtroom.

Marks was increasingly irritated and eventually had the crowd in the passage forcibly removed because of the noise.

Mathenjwa told the court the accused “are in the same unit I am in”. He’s correct: they’re all with the Hawks.

But there’s a clash of policing cultures here.

The alleged killers, Cato Manor, or Kito as they are known, are sharp-end cops.

They wear T-shirts, jeans and boots and go through doors at 3am pursuing armed robbers and killers.

Most come from the old school SAP but are still in the game.
 
The other Hawks team, the investigators in the witness box, all look like Feds on TV.

They were all suits, shiny shoes, shaven heads. Their evidence was precise, tutored, by-the-book.

They were clean – none of them spent the night in a Durban Central cell.


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