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Pretoria - While the world’s paparazzi scrambled to get the first photographs of murder accused Oscar Pistorius earlier this year, police officers escorting him to court were secretly snapping their own pictures.
It caused such consternation at the Boschkop police station where Pistorius was held that the management confiscated the private cellphones of 45 police officers and took another four official phones.
Disciplinary steps are being taken against the culprits, the Police Ministry confirmed on Monday.
Details of the clandestine photography emerged in a written reply from Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to a parliamentary question from the DA.
Mthethwa said the phones had been confiscated on February 20 after it came to light that pictures had been taken of “a high-profile individual” being transported between court and the police station.
The devices were to be used as “possible evidence” in disciplinary action against the officers.
Mthethwa’s spokesman, Zweli Mnisi, could not provide details on Monday, saying the ministry “would want to respect” the disciplinary process “until finality”.
Mnisi would not say how many cellphone pictures were taken or what the officers who took the photos intended to do with them.
But the arrest of Pistorius in connection with the Valentine’s Day shooting of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in his home in Pretoria saw global media camped outside the Boschkop police station, hoping to snap a picture of the athlete.
As Pistorius waited to hear whether he would be granted bail, the former lead investigator in the case, Hilton Botha, revealed that foreign media had offered $50 000 (R458 000) for a photograph of the toilet door that the athlete shot through when he killed Steenkamp.
At the time, Botha said the offer had been made by an international media house to “an Officer Van der Merwe” who worked on the crime scene. He did not know the officer’s first name.
But it wasn’t just the international media that were clamouring for pictures of the inside of Pistorius’ house and the crime scene, local media also offered money to police officers.
Botha said he and other officers who worked on the case were offered between R5 000 and R10 000 a picture by local media houses.
He declined to name which media were involved.
“If that happens (the leaking of photographs), both the State and the defence’s cases could be destroyed,” said Botha.
“I decided at that point that all pictures should be sent off to forensics immediately. That way we had no pictures and there could be no leak.”
He said Pistorius’s house had been locked since the shooting, and police officers had been stationed outside to protect the crime scene.
“But with that kind of money, you just never know,” he added.
On Monday, Botha was stunned to hear that his former colleagues’ cellphones had been seized, saying he just could not believe this.
“I was involved in the case and my phone was never taken, and when I was there, no one’s (from the detective team) phone was ever taken,” he said.
DA police spokeswoman Dianne Kohler Barnard said on Monday that the actions of the station management amounted to a “resounding vote of no confidence in their own staff”.
“It was actually a presumption that all police officers at the station were potential criminals,” she said.
If this was how the management felt about their juniors, it raised the question of why they were employed in the first place.
“Presumption of guilt is not how our criminal justice system works,” she added.
Police morale was already at “rock bottom” and would hardly be raised by their own superiors effectively saying they were untrustworthy.
The pictures had probably been taken with the intention to sell them to the media. The disproportionate response was clearly related to Pistorius’s profile.
The celebrated Olympian was granted bail of R1 million on February 22 and has since had the conditions relaxed to allow him to compete overseas.
The sensational bail hearing following the shooting of his girlfriend included the revelation that the lead detective at the time, Botha, himself faced murder charges for firing at a minibus taxi full of passengers.
Botha, whose evidence in the hearing was badly exposed by the defence, was pulled from the case and subsequently resigned.
Pistorius is due back in court on June 4.