Police watchdog investigating 'baffling' death of sex worker while in custody

Elma Robyn Montsumi. (Sweat.org.za)
Elma Robyn Montsumi. (Sweat.org.za)
  • The Independent Police Investigative Directorate says it is investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of a sex worker while in police custody in Cape Town in April. 
  • Robyn Montsumi seemingly hanged herself in her cell after being in custody for several days on a drug charge. 
  • Social justice organisations are calling for an investigation into Montsumi's death.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) says it is investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of a sex worker while in police custody in Cape Town in April. 

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke, the National Movement of Sex Workers and Triangle Project have called for an investigation into the death of Elma Robyn Montsumi.

While indications are that she took her own life, the three organisations have questioned the circumstances surrounding her arrest and death. 

Montsumi, 39, was arrested on 9 April on a charge of drug possession.

In a joint statement, the organisations said the expectation was that Montsumi would be released on bail in terms of the lockdown regulations, but that did not happen.

"Robin's partner reported that he and some of her friends from the area were able to communicate with her by shouting from the outside and she would call back on how she was doing. They reported she said on the Saturday [11 April]  that she felt ill and was vomiting," the organisations said on Friday.

Did not respond

"According to her friends, she did not respond [on the] Sunday morning [12 April] when they tried to call on her and when her partner got to the police station, there was an ambulance and bystanders told him that it was Robyn inside and that she [hanged] herself. 

"Our lobbying officer went inside the police station to inquire and she was simply told that Robyn had been taken to Groote Schuur hospital. Robyn's family... went to Mowbray police station and was told that the detective who came to the station just before noon to book Robyn found her body in the cells."

IPID spokesperson Ndileka Cola told News24 that the incident is being investigated. "The lady was arrested in possession of drugs, she was arrested [and kept] in a single police cell where she hanged herself. Nobody has been arrested or held responsible for the death of the woman," Cola said. 

'Reports of suicide are baffling'

The organisations said the news of Montsumi's death was "devastating".

"We knew her as a passionate activist aware of her rights. Those who interacted with her prior to her arrest remember her as being upbeat and the reports of an apparent suicide are baffling," they say. 

"We want to know why bail was not fixed for Robyn for offences in terms of Schedule 2 Part I (which includes possession) as per the lockdown regulations issued by the Minister of Justice [and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola] on 31 March.

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"It was reported by her friends that she said she was ill. Did she report that she was ill, [was] it noted by police officers and, if so, what was the nature of her illness and was she provided with medical care?"

SWEAT has referred the case to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) "because it also forms part of the SAHRC's broader investigation into the persecution of homeless people in the Mowbray area during the time the police were trying to pressurise people to voluntarily go the Strandfontein camp".

"Noting the increased incidents of gender-based violence during lockdown, SWEAT has also submitted an official complaint to the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) in terms of their mandate and role to monitor and investigate gender-related violations by the police and many others."  

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