Human Rights Commission under fire for 7-month silence on sex worker death in custody

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Sex worker activists from SWEAT marched to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) offices in Cape Town on Wednesday, demanding that it hold people to account for the death of Robyn Montsumi in police cells. The SAHRC has been investigating for seven months says SWEAT.
Sex worker activists from SWEAT marched to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) offices in Cape Town on Wednesday, demanding that it hold people to account for the death of Robyn Montsumi in police cells. The SAHRC has been investigating for seven months says SWEAT.
Photo: Liezl Human/GroundUp
  • Robyn Montsumi, a sex worker arrested on a drug charge, died in police custody in April 2020.
  • A few dozen sex worker activists marched to the SAHRC in Cape Town on Wednesday, demanding to know what happened to the commission's investigation seven months later.
  • IPID said it finalised its investigation and had informed SAPS.

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) demonstrated outside the offices of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Wednesday.

The protesters wanted answers over the death of Robyn Montsumi in custody at Mowbray police station in April this year. The SAHRC had given no feedback on the progress of its investigation of seven months, GroundUp reported. 

SWEAT members handed over a memorandum demanding that the SAHRC fulfils its constitutional mandate to investigate Montsumi's death; that it arranged a meeting with police watchdog IPID; and that it conducted an investigation independent of SAPS.

Eugene Van Rooyen, SWEAT Western Cape area manager, said according to eye witnesses on 9 April, during Level 5 lockdown, Montsumi was apparently searched, assaulted, and detained by law enforcement. She remained in the holding cells for about four days. She was found dead in the cell.

"People kept on going back and speaking to her through the window. She was telling them that she was seriously sick and throwing up. She said she needed help and that she had nothing to eat," said Van Rooyen.

READ | Police brutality under lockdown: Public has 'no faith' in cops

Van Rooyen said that SWEAT had received no feedback from the SAHRC on its investigation into Montsumi's death, despite various promises that it would arrange meetings with SWEAT and IPID. None of these meetings took place.

SWEAT programme manager Nosipho Vidima said: "They could have actually communicated with us. If the investigation process is slow. Then they need to tell us it's slow right now and not just move on as if we haven't even submitted an enquiry."

SWEAT advocacy manager Dudu Dlamini, said sex worker issues were ignored because they were criminalised. "Unfortunately democracy is only for certain people - not for sex workers."

She said Montsumi's family had no closure.

During the protest, an administrative assistant of the SAHRC came out to receive the memorandum, since the commissioners were not there.

"It's the last time now that we will follow up," said Dlamini.

"If they don't respond, we will come back in numbers."

SWEAT gave the SAHRC a deadline of 15 November to respond.

The SAHRC had not responded to GroundUp at the time of publication.

IPID told GroundUp that it had finalised the matter and that the docket was sent to SAPS for inquest.

It's our understanding that an inquest was conducted when a death occurred in custody, but not directly by police violence (e.g. illness or suicide).

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