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Let's stop police brutality

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On Tuesday morning before 6am, the Royal Swaziland Police raided the houses of five young men who live in an area just south of Manzini. 

The five men were not told why the police were there but were threatened with beatings and forced against their will into the waiting police vehicles.

There were no warrants for their arrests.

Their families were not even told where the police were taking them.

Colleagues of mine were told about the situation and they set about trying to find out where the men were held and what crimes they were being investigated for.

It turns out that there is an ongoing dispute between the youth of that area and its inner council. The youth are unhappy that a playing field that they have been using for many years for games, exercise and fun has been handed over to the local school without any community consultation or consideration of the needs of its users, the young people. 

The school apparently added insult to injury by erecting a steel mesh fence around the field.

They youth is asking for the field to be returned to community use.

At the same time, there has been an incident where a car belonging to a local dignitary has caught fire and also the wire fence surrounding the field has been cut. 

The police claimed that these incidents are linked to the dispute and were bringing the young men in for investigations.

When I say ‘investigations,’ I really mean ‘interrogations.’

Some of the men were not only questioned but they also claim that they were quite severely physically threatened, beaten with an open hand and closed fists and they allegedly had their heads put inside plastic bags and were suffocated to the point of terror. 

All the time they were being questioned, they claim the police were continually telling them about the people who had already died in their cells when they did not cooperate.

They claim the police boasted that nobody could prosecute them since they would simply find the dockets and tear them up. They allegedly said they feared nobody and were above the law.

Thankfully, all of the young men were released the same day.

When my colleagues and I met them, we found a group of very scared and upset individuals whose self confidence and esteem had been badly shaken.

Unfortunately, in my work as a human rights defender, I have heard many similar Swazi and South African stories. I believe these men to be honest.

In the week that the initial findings are being handed down on the killing of 37 miners by South African Police Service this might seem like a minor incident and, of course, in comparison to that massive tragedy, it is. 

My respect and condolences go out to all of the families concerned.

However, if we, in Swaziland, do not deal with our small incidents now, we will have to deal with bigger ones later.

Obviously, we needed to get the men who had been beaten some medical attention, and this is where things get interesting. At Raleigh Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Mazini, nobody was even prepared to treat them. When they told the medics of the nature of their injuries and their causes, they were sent from department to department and told to wait until it became obvious that they were not going to be treated. They eventually got the message and left. The problem in Swaziland with assault injuries is that you usually need a form from the police before the Medics can treat you. 

The police are not going to give you a form when they are the ones who assaulted you in the first place, will they?

So, in exasperation, the men came to my office and we thought we could try some of the non-governmental organisations that also give medical services. We tried both Baylor Clinic in Mbabane and Médiciens Sans Frontièrs (Doctors Without Borders) in Matsapha. 

We were relieved that these organisations were prepared to treat the men for their injuries but we were shocked neither of them was prepared to go any further and provide a more detailed examination, which we could use to, not only heal these men’s bodies but to protect their human rights and find for them some sort of useable, independent evidence of the abuses they had suffered. We provided the MSF doctors with written advice from a colleague of ours who is an Independent Forensic Pathologist and who has expertise in dealing with exactly these sorts of cases. Our local NGO doctors flatly refused to carry out any of his suggested additional tests or examinations. They had ‘orders’ from above.

We even went to a local Swazi doctor and offered to pay him but he refused: he simply did not want to get involved in any way with challenging the government in court.

I can imagine that it was the same for the foreign organisations.

MSF, Baylor and others come here to do amazing and good work in treating hundreds and thousands of sick children and adults in the country. 

Without their help, many, if not most, of these people would die.

However, to do this brilliant work, they have to make a devil’s pact with our government.

They are not allowed to get into ‘politics’.

Now, in Swaziland, what we call ‘politics’ is not really politics at all. In most countries ‘politics’ is the contesting for power by an organisation. 

Around here, any form of questioning of the government is deemed a political act. In any normal country, questioning the government is seen as an act of citizenship, not betrayal. However, questioning the government over policy is one thing, what we have here is ignoring some serious breaches of freedoms that are in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and are attacks on the local defenders of these rights.

International Treaties the Swaziland Government has signed and even ratified have recognised the fact that the defence of human rights is not a political act. Human Rights are, by their very nature, universal. They apply to all people.

Politics is the very opposite.

It is an attempt to win the hearts and minds of not all of the people but only of most, or even many, of them. Rights are universal, politics are partial.

In my opinion, doctors who treat us do not have the right to decide they will only care for our immediate medical pains. 

They know that doctors have eradicated terrible diseases like cholera through preventative action. The writing of detailed reports on human rights abuses is similar. It can be used to prevent further harm. 

 

The flu vaccine might only protect half the population. It’s not perfect but is definitely better than nothing.

Doctors use it all the time.

A report that details the injuries and comes to some reasonably considered conclusions can be just as effective in stopping injuries to other victims of police violence as a flu vaccine - not perfect, just better.

Do we really believe the Swazi Government is so callous that it would allow thousands of TB patients to die so that it would not be embarrassed by reports on a few rogue police officers who torture innocent (or even guilty) suspects?

Can you imagine the international outcry if Baylor and MSF were kicked out of the country for merely saying the injuries that some people presented to them were consistent with beatings, suffocation, electrocution and other cruel and unusual punishment?

This government is not so cruel or short sighted, is it?

I think the directors of these Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) need to meet with some of us human rights defenders in the country to establish a protocol for medical examinations for victims of alleged state brutality. The government will then be placed in a position. If it wants to continue to ask for these organisations’ help in dealing with the worst HIV, AIDS and TB crises, the world has ever seen, it must allow them to report on allegations about its police officers’ abuses, beatings and strangling of suspects. 

If there is something or nothing, in the allegations, the doctors can, and must, say so. The people I work for want to deal with the truth, not propaganda. If the evidence of abuse is there, we need doctors to tell us so.

Protection of Human Rights is not an option. These rights are universal and indivisible. The right to life is the same whether you are sick or healthy. 

It applies to the supporters and opponents of governments.

It is not enough to heal the sick or the injured when you have an option to prevent them coming to harm.

To me, accurately reporting on injuries obtained as a result of Human Rights abuses is a valid public health intervention.

In the meantime, if you, or people you know, have been threatened, beaten, or strangled or abused by the police, call my office at the Caritas Centre in Manzini and ask for Lungile. We can only make these abuses stop if we all act together. By telling our stories, we will not only heal our hurt but stop other people getting hurt too. Our police are here to protect, not hurt us.


COMMENTS:

- We cannot stop police brutality as long as Majozi persists in giving huge budget allocations to the security forces. The police have too much money and they think they must been seen to be spending it 'appropriately', which is on the abuse of the citizens of this country. Look at the budget allocation for the armed forces. It, too, is to be used on the citizens of this country because I don't see any war coming our way. Until we all all lodge our national concerns on these things they will continue despite the provisional protections we are supposed to enjoy in our constitution. Our tax moneies are not supposed to be used to abuse us.
March 24, 2013, 7:39 am, Disgruntled Swazi Tax Payer

 

Maybe we also need an independent Internal Affairs unit that will be set up to look into these complaints.
March 24, 2013, 7:08 am, Kelekele

 

- Its becoming a bad habit,that's why the father of the deceased soldier who was killed by many soldiers bewitched them I can. Go straight to him an ask for help their duty is arrest not to assault n kill that's the only option we tired about this stories.
March 24, 2013, 5:24 am, linda

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