We can do anything, says cop

2008-08-13 00:00

ARE foreign nationals in Pietermaritzburg at the receiving end of South African police harassment? Up until last month, 26-year-old Zimbabwean refugee Phinias Joe probably would have said no. Despite having been in South Africa since 2004, he’d never been asked by police for his ID book, let alone his (valid) refugee papers.

But that was before his brush with the law on July 22, which resulted in his 16-year-old relative having to spend a night in hospital and receive nine stitches to patch up head injuries sustained while in police custody. Joe himself was detained for two days at Mountain Rise Police Station, where he claims to have been repeatedly beaten and threatened, despite being able to produce his refugee permit within an hour of the arrest. Joe says there was a distinct xenophobic edge to the threats.

Indications are that Mountain Rise top brass are taking the matter seriously. Reverend Ingrid Andersen of the Pietermaritzburg Anti-Xenophobic Coalition (co-ordinated by Pacsa) who attended a meeting a few days after the incident with uMgungundlovu municipal mayor and coalition chairman Yusuf Bhamjee and Mountain Rise Station Commissioner Director Hariram Badul, described the response of the senior policemen as “responsible, positive and honest”.

“The message from Director Badul was that it was not a matter to be swept under the carpet,” she said. “There is every indication that they are taking it seriously, that they are treating it as an incident of police brutality, and have begun internal investigations.”

Andersen, who is based at the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa), which co-ordinates the coalition, said the incident involving Joe and the minor is the first case of “police brutality” reported to her since the coalition’s formation.

“I hear more often about cases where the police are simply unhelpful when people report xenophobic threats.”

She cautioned against making generalisations about the police, citing the example of Superintendent Herman O’Connell, a member of the coalition, who is “very supportive”.

The issue of xenophobia in the police was highlighted nationally in January when police raided the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg — home to hundreds of Zimbabwean immigrants. The incident drew criticism from the South African Human Rights Commission. A report on xenophobia among Johannesburg police published by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in 2006, suggested that xenophobia appeared to “be more significant among the lower ranks”.

According to Durban-based Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), which was involved in the case of Joe and his compatriots, incidents of police brutality and harassment of foreign nationals in Durban is “ongoing” and centres around “certain police stations”.

LHR’s Sherylle Dass said: “In Durban, we have ongoing reports of racist and discriminatory behaviour by police towards foreign nationals.” Such behaviour, she said, takes the form of failure to commission affidavits or open criminal charges and random pick-ups which sometimes involve violence.

Dass said the incident involving Joe was the first the organisation has dealt with in Pietermaritzburg since it recently forged a relationship with Pacsa to assist migrants. She said LHR intends taking the matter further.

Recounting his experience, Joe told The Witness that he was “dragged violently by the neck from the back of the van” at the police station. It was then that the two minors tried to flee. On being recaptured, one was bleeding from gashes on his forehead and ear.

Joe says he was struck twice, once across the mouth, on arrival at the charge office. The following evening, a policeman, with a nickname known to The Witness, was allegedly given the task of “sorting him out”. According to Joe, the policeman said: “You are a foreigner. I was born here. If you think you can come here and call the shots, you are wrong. We can do anything. People have been burnt, they disappear ...”

Joe said he interpreted the comment as a reference to the highly publicised death of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave, who was burnt alive during May’s xenophobic violence. “He made it sound as if the police had the power to ensure that you could be another forgotten person in life’s history.”

Joe claims he was kicked several times in his ribs and neck and signed a statement which he did not read. Coming from Zimbabwe, where Joe’s relatives are “intimidated all the time”, Joe said he didn’t take the threats lightly.

In a written response to The Witness, police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Henry Budhram confirmed that a case of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm is being investigated in connection with the minor’s injuries.

However, he added that “in so far as the assault on the Zimbabwean national is concerned, it is advised that a case be opened and the matter be investigated”.

Station Commissioner Director Hariram Badul said statements from various witnesses to the assault charge have been re-taken “to clarify issues in order to deal with them more effectively”. Neither of the spokesmen responded to allegations that the officers who made the arrests may have been drunk at the time.

According to Budhram, sting operations targeting foreign nationals are carried out periodically in conjunction with Home Affairs inspectors. “Those unable to produce documentation are taken into custody pending deportation by the court.” Budhram said “at times” some of the documentation produced is “false”. Joe was eventually released after his papers were verified by a Home Affairs official who allegedly told him that if he “pretended to be clever”, he could spend up to 30 days in the cell.

Joe’s ordeal began after his young relative phoned him to say that they were being questioned by three policemen in civilian clothes outside a local shop where the boy had gone with his half-brother (also a minor) to buy mealie meal. Joe and two other Zimbabweans rushed to the scene.

“I wanted to explain that the boys are minors and had just arrived in the country. Despite trying, they had not yet been able to get their paperwork because the department accepts only a limited number of applications on specific days and the boys had no proof of having tried,” he said.

Joe said he is grateful to Pacsa, Lawyers for Human Rights and other organisations for their efforts to help those arrested. Despite being traumatised by the events, he is adamant that he will not allow himself to be ruled by fear. At the time of his release, two of Joe’s compatriots who were arrested with him — a man who accompanied Joe on the day of the arrests and the other teenage boy — were still being detained. They lack the correct paperwork. While police would not comment on their fate, Joe said they face certain deportation.

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