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Friday, 13 April 2012

Better Policing (Police Torture), 2nd Edition

A disturbing report from the Human Rights Commission on the regular occurrence of police torture across  the country, with special reference to the shocking case in Kasama. The case also serves to highlight how tackling victim's fear is vital in enabling people to come forward and report this rampant abuse. 

Today I use a case that has been investigated by the Kasama Office of the Human Rights Commission (HRC), which is sadly a regular occurrence in many police stations across Zambia, but which should never occur at all.

A resident of Chitambi Village in Kasama, a domestic worker was on Sunday January 9, 2012, taken to the police station on suspicion that he had stolen a carpet which he had been given to clean the previous day.

He pleaded his innocence but was still handed over to the police for investigations. One officer from the CID wing interrogated him over the missing carpet. The complainant alleged that he was severely beaten with a whip on his back, feet and palms. The officer allegedly handcuffed both his legs and hands, had him suspended on the infamous kampelwa (a swing) and continuously beat him in a bid to extract a confession. He claimed that the beating only stopped when he became unconscious, at which point he was taken into custody.

By then, his hands and legs were swollen. He was denied medical forms to enable him get treatment at the hospital. At the time this suspect made his complaint, sores were still visible on his body. His left hand had become numb and he could only walk with a limp as the punishment was too severe. At the time of the complaint he still had not received any medical attention.

The complainant was able to identify the officer who tortured him, whose nickname is “Terminator.” In spite of all this torture, the police investigations were not able to sufficiently link him to the theft of the carpet.

The above facts were reported by the HRC to the police commissioner for Northern Province, Mary Chikwanda in a bid to have punitive measures taken against the torturer.

As at Friday March 29, 2012, the torture suspect had been effectively identified. He, apparently, had been recently transferred from Kasama Central Police Station to Mporokoso. The police authorities, nevertheless, promised that action would be taken on the erring officer because torture was not permitted as part of police or any other investigations.

Interestingly, a few days after this, the complainant came to the HRC offices in the company of the police officer and stated that he wished to withdraw the case against the police officer because it had just come to his knowledge that he was married to his cousin.

The Commission advised that the matter had been handed over to the police for further action and so could not decide on the matter. The complainant was advised that while he was free to withdraw the matter, the police would still be expected to deal with the officer administratively because it had been established that he had fallen short of the required professional conduct and that his action was a human rights violation contrary to the provisions of the Convention Against Torture (CAT) to which Zambia was a party. Additionally, even the Zambian Constitution prohibited torture and so action still needed to be taken.

On April 4, 2012, the Deputy Police Commissioner notified the Human Rights Commission that the police officer had formerly been arrested and charged with Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm and was expected to appear in the Kasama Subordinate court on April 10, 2012.
The prevalence of torture as a method of extracting information from suspects is not in question. Many are the times when people have complained to the HRC about these acts and in many cases that have been followed up, evidence is readily adduced that torture did occur.
In some unfortunate circumstances people have died from such torture even if they were not necessarily guilty of the offences for which they were being investigated.

Before they indulge in such acts, individual officers must ask themselves how they would feel if they were suspected of a crime and were then battered around even when deep down their hearts, they knew they had NOT committed such crimes (as was the case with the suspect under discussion here).

It is totally unfair and inhuman to brutalize someone without evidence that they are guilty of a crime. Even if they were clearly the ones at whom all evidence of guilt was pointing, our laws, both local and international do not permit state agents like police or other law enforcers to torture or abuse anyone. The courts of law reserve the right to execute their mandate of determining the punitive measures against those adjudged to be guilty of having broken the law.

It is unacceptable to have people dying or being rendered physically or mentally invalid only on suspicion that they committed a crime. People must be protected against such excesses. It is common knowledge that police usually dilly dally to investigate their own officers when it is reported that they brutalized someone and so actions like transfers are common to shield a suspected torturer. It is, therefore, heart warming and worthy of congratulations to Commissioner Chikwanda of Northern Police and others below her for not shielding her erring officer. Let the law take its course.

For our part as HRC, we will continue to pursue any such cases brought to our attention to their most just end possible. Our desire is that this Kasama officer be given the maximum custodial sentence so that others realize that they can get jailed for such illegal and unprofessional actions.

Additionally, however, one hopes the victim can be assisted to sue the State and claim damages for the injuries suffered. Government must start taking responsibility for the abhorrent actions of its agents by compensating innocent victims, who suffer trauma aside to the physical injuries. Such damages should then be surcharged to the terminal benefits, if any, of the officer.

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