Mpumalanga cop cleared of wrongdoing after 'Mohammed' comments made during arrests at mosque

Minister Cele takes part in a joint law enforcement operation in Krugersdorp on the first day of lockdown level 4 (News24/ Azarrah Karrim)
Minister Cele takes part in a joint law enforcement operation in Krugersdorp on the first day of lockdown level 4 (News24/ Azarrah Karrim)
Azarrah Karrim

Minister of Police Bheki Cele has revealed that a police officer accused of making blasphemous comments while arresting a group of Muslim men at a mosque last month, has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Cele confirmed the development while noting that cases against police officers increased by 32% during the lockdown, compared to the same period last year.

The minister claimed citizens provoked police officers.

On Friday morning, Cele told a joint meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Police and the Select Committee on Security and Justice that they receive complaints of "heavy-handedness" of police members.

He said the South African police was "highly overseen" internally and by Parliament, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) and the Human Rights Commission.

"Indeed, there are members that sometimes get overexcited, but not too many of them. Many members are doing their job according to the book," he said.

He said sometimes the police officers are "under heavy provocation".

WATCH | 'Kom, julle bliksems!' - worshippers arrested at Mpumalanga mosque

"There are such things that community members themselves are provocative towards the police. We do check the members. The only problem, we don't have the structures to check the community when they are provocative, when they are offensive, to the law enforcers."

He complained that police officers are presumed guilty before they have been found guilty.

Backtrack

Last month, a video circulated on social media in which police officers could be seen entering what appeared to be a mosque and seemingly hurled verbal abuse at congregants who were ordered to lie on the floor.

"Are you bigger than the president? Is Mohammed bigger than the president?" a police officer could be heard asking congregants.

Cele subsequently issued an apology to the Muslim community.

When he appeared before the two committees last week, he made it clear that he only apologised for the blasphemy - not the arrests, because the worshippers had broken the law.

On Friday, he backtracked, claiming an investigation found that there was no blasphemy.

He said three of the congregants were named Mohammed, including one of the organisers, and the police officers were referring to the person, not Prophet Mohammed.

"The question of blasphemy, for us, falls off," he said.

After Cele, IPID delivered a presentation to the committees, expressing its concern about the "complaints received from the public on the alleged use of excessive force" by law enforcement officers.

Between 26 March 2019 and 5 May 2019, IPID registered 628 cases. During the same period this year, 828 cases were registered. This is an increase of 200 cases that translates to 32%, acting chief director of investigations Thuso Keefelakae said.

Of the 828 cases, IPID believes 376 cases are related to Covid-19 operations. Of these, 79 are cases of discharge of a firearm and 280 of assault. Most cases in both categories were recorded in the Western Cape.

Between 26 March and 5 May, there were 18 deaths in police custody and 32 deaths as a result of police action. IPID considers only 10 deaths as a result of police action to be Covid-19 related.

In a statement released shortly after the meeting, DA MP Andrew Whitfield said Cele should take full responsibility for the 32% rise in cases against police officers.

The DA will table a motion of public importance for Parliament to debate the urgent need to demilitarise the police in South Africa.

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