S. Africa inquest exonerates police, but shows need to protect detainees

What came to be seen as an important test case of human rights vs. the tough security laws of South Africa has ended in a decision that will no doubt please the government.

The case in question was a lengthy inquest into the cause of death of trade unionist Dr. Neil Aggett, who was found hanged in his cell earlier this year while being detained by South African security police.

A magistrate ruled Dec. 21 that Dr. Aggett had committed suicide - a fact not contested by Aggett's family - and that the police had not driven the young medical doctor to take his own life as the family had alleged.

Still, if the verdict was not to the liking of critics of this country's security practices, the inquest provided one of the most thorough airings South Africa has seen of what goes on in detention cells. Lawyers representing the Aggett family were allowed to call a number of former security prisoners to testify, and they told disturbing stories of torture and intimidation by security police interrogators.

The allegations of maltreatment of detainees has gained such credibility that South Africa's minister of law and order, Louis Le Grange, recently drew up this country's first code of conduct for how detainees should be treated by police.

Human-rights advocates were not satisfied with the new code but took some comfort in the government's tacit admission that security prisoners needed more protection.

Aggett was the 46th security prisoner, but the first white, to die while in South African police custody. (Total deaths now number at least 47.) He had been detained for his alleged involvement with the outlawed African National Congress.

The inquest came down to the word of the security police vs. charges made by Aggett himself before his death that he had been tortured by the police.

This allegation of torture was supported by testimony of other detainees who described similar treatment during their own incarcerations. Some of these prisoners saw Aggett while he was in prison and said his condition deteriorated noticeably just before his death. But the magistrate granted more credibility to the testimony of security police, who corroborated each other, than to the detainees' evidence, which he said contained contradictions. Police denied mistreating Aggett.

South Africa's security laws allow for indefinite detention and deny security prisoners any rights to legal representation or even to visits by family members.

The government is now in a position to point to the Aggett inquest as proof its security police are operating correctly - despite the growing number of prisoners who die while in their custody.

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