Presented as written by Zoë Postman, journalist at GroundUp
Court hears how inmates were allegedly assaulted and tortured by prison officials
Zoë Postman, GroundUp
Five prisoners have taken the Minister of Justice to Court, alleging they were assaulted and tortured at Leeuwkop Maximum Correctional Centre five years ago. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)
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Five current and former inmates of Leeuwkop Maximum Correctional Centre are suing the justice minister and Department of Correctional Services after they were allegedly assaulted and tortured by prison officials, GroundUp reported.
The trial, which is set down for 15 days, started in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on October 28. The inmates are being represented by Lawyers For Human Rights (LHR).
According to an LHR press statement, the alleged assault and torture happened on August 10, 2014, after one of the inmates, Xolani Zulu, jammed his cell door with a toothbrush, preventing prison officials from getting inside.
“He did this in protest against the unlawful blanket removal of privileges from all the inmates of Cell B1 and the officials’ refusal to grant him an audience with senior management at Leeuwkop in an attempt to resolve the unfair treatment meted out to the inmates of Cell B1,” the statement read.
The court papers stated that the assault and torture included beating them with batons, slapping, punching and kicking them, giving inmates electrical shocks, setting dogs on them, forcing them to do squats and handstands for long periods of time, and dragging them across the floor.
‘Precautionary measures’, self-defence
Also, the court papers said prison officials forced some of the inmates to undress and put them under running water while shocking them with electricity. Another official sat on one inmate’s face to suffocate him and another official used an inmate’s sling to choke him.
The five inmates – Zulu, Llewellyn Smith, Benson Qibi, Abel Phasha and Mthokozisi Sithole – sustained severe physical and psychological injuries during the course of that day, according to the LHR statement.
But the department, in its court papers, denied any allegations of torture or assault. It accused the inmates of using foreign objects on August 10, 2014, to jam the cell gate to prevent officials from conducting a search.
After a locksmith was called to open the cell gate, officials attempted to enter the cell but “various objects, including human faeces, were hurled at them”.
“The officers were accordingly constrained to take precautionary measures, including force, among others, to defend themselves,” read the court papers.
Throughout the trial, the court is expected to hear expert evidence from forensic pathologists, doctors, psychiatrists and use-of-force experts to determine what happened on the day and how the injuries were sustained.
One of the expert witnesses, Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl, took the stand on Friday to testify on her medical examinations of the inmates after the incident. Van Zyl was an independent medical practitioner who was serving on the board of Doctors Without Borders at the time.
Her examination took place on August 15, 2014, five days after the incident occurred. She said she asked each patient to undress and examined them one at a time.
During her examination, Van Zyl was required to fill out a J88 form – a form generated by the Department of Justice – which serves as medical evidence in cases where interpersonal violence has taken place.
Van Zyl said she was not able to take photographs of the injuries to accompany the J88 form because no cellphones were allowed in the prison, but she made comprehensive notes of everything she observed during the examinations.
Some injuries might have faded by the time of her examination, but some she observed were classified as severe, she told the court.
Before Van Zyl could finish her testimony, the LHR’s counsel asked that the case be stood down until Monday when the trial continues.