S. Africa police may back down on stiffer security law

It looks as if South Africa's minister of police, Louis Le Grange, will be forced to back down over proposed new security legislation that has dismayed even some members of his own ruling National Party.

The government already has the power to arrest people without a warrant and to hold them in solitary confinement as long as it wants. Prisoners held in terms of this "security" legislation are not entitled to consult their lawyers, nor do they have any right to appeal to the courts.

Now, Police Minister Le Grange has proposed taking this legislation even further. He suggests that any police action taken in terms of certain sections of the security laws should be kept secret, and that newspapers should not be allowed to publish even the names of people who were arrested.

Technically, the way the proposed legislation is framed a father, for example , would not even be entitled to tell his own wife that their son or daughter had been taken away by the police.

The penalty: a fine of up to $17,800 or jail for up to eight years -- or both.

There was an immediate shocked reaction from the political left and right and from a wide range of lawyers and academics.

The main white opposition party, the Progressive Federal Party, declared the plan "will enable the government to remove people from society without anyone but the police knowing."

The party's spokesman on police affairs, lawyer Ray Swart, declared the legislation was "the most drastic single move yet to stifle information about the detention of people. . . . It is comparable to the measures taken in totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and Russia."

Police Minister Le Grange started backtracking almost at once. No, no he said, "I have no intention of keeping anyone in jail without anyone knowing about it. All I have in mind is to make it possible for the police to perform some very sensitive operations and duties without particulars thereof being made known."

But his statement cut little ice. As Mrs. Helen Suzman, a defender of civil liberties, declared, ministerial assurances did not mean a thing if the law itself provided for secrecy and high penalties.

In the face of the public outcry, Mr. Le Grange now concedes he might "reconsider" the phrasing of the proposed law.

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