Life Esidimeni inquest 'will open a bigger can of worms', say victims' families

2019-09-19 17:36
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Three years after the Life Esidimeni tragedy, the families of the victims will now have to wait even longer to get any closure, following the National Prosecuting Authority's decision on Tuesday to refer the docket for a formal inquest. 

This after investigators were unable to gather enough evidence to bring charges against anyone linked to the deaths in the 144 cases they probed, News24 reported. 

But, a representative of the families said the inquest could open an even "bigger can of worms". 

In total, 144 psychiatric patients died, many of starvation and neglect, after the Gauteng health department cancelled their outsourced contract with Life Esidimeni to save money, transferring thousands of patients out of the facility.

On Thursday, Christine Nxumalo from the Life Esidimeni Family Committee, and a sister of one of the deceased, told eNCA that the NPA's decision was "frustrating".

'We have a lot of questions'

"I can tell you that we we actually asked a lot of questions. We gave different scenarios and of what [the NPA] could possibly look at in terms of prosecution but, according to them, to instigate a criminal matter or case, you really have to have solid evidence."

Nxumalo said the NPA had told family members that the matter would most probably be thrown out of court.

"Then we'll struggle even more to get it back into court. So we'd rather go the inquest route, knowing that we have our facts in hand. We couldn't argue with [the NPA] on that point."

NPA spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwana on Tuesday said that a "formal and joint inquest into all deaths related to the Esidimeni tragedy will be held in the High Court of Pretoria before a Judge". 

It is not immediately clear when the inquest will be established.

READ | NPA to establish formal inquest into Life Esidimeni deaths

Nxumalo said the families did not know whether justice would eventually be served.

"We can only hope. All we can do is push. Since the arbitration, we have been on the NPA's necks, pushing them to get to a point. We've been asking for a decision since the arbitration." 

An arbitration had been established on the recommendation of the health ombudsman after the release of a damning report which detailed findings regarding the deaths of psychiatric patients when they were transferred to unsuitable NGOs in 2015.

"The [inquiry], led by retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke concluded its work in March 2018 and found that government officials acted in breach of the law and the Constitution when they ended the Life Esidimeni contract and moved patients to NGOs without due regard for their wellbeing and state of health," Mjonondwane said.

In April 2017, the NPA received 144 dockets relating to the tragedy. 

'A bigger can of worms'

The acting Director of Public Prosecutions in Pretoria, George Baloyi, then assembled a team of four experience advocates to work with investigators to collect more information and build a case.

"Led by a very senior advocate, they devoted most of their attention to a very protracted investigation, converting all 144 enquiry dockets into one docket, guiding investigations and monitoring progress on further documentation/statements that had to be obtained," Mjonondwane explained.

She added, however, that the process "has revealed that the evidence at our disposal currently is not enough to prove causation of death nor is it enough to help us link the actions of different role players to the eventual deaths".

Nxumalo said a number of questions could be answered at the inquest, such as what happened to nine patients who were still missing.

"We will look at every official and role [they played] in this whole process; the police were also involved at some point. So it's going to open a bigger can of worms than the arbitration did."  

- Compiled by Riaan Grobler. Additional reporting by Azarrah Karrim.

Watch the interview here:

Read more on:    npa  |  life esidemeni
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