Brutal torture of people in police and military custody has raised major global concerns about South Africa's ability to implement its legal international and national human rights obligations.
Amnesty International (AI), the premier international human rights organisation, says it continues to receive corroborated evidence of abuses that include the use of electric shocks, suffocation, forced painful postures, suspension from moving vehicles and helicopters, and severe and prolonged beatings.
"There are clusters of police stations around the country where repeated incidences of torture are reported," says Mary Rayner, a researcher for Amnesty International's Africa programme in London.
"As recently as September, we received a report that the Brixton Murder and Robbery Unit - which has been involved in systematic torture for years - continue to act with impunity. There are at least 20 to 30 severe cases of torture a year that are reported, but there are many more incidents that are not reported."
Rayner, part of an AI delegation who visited South Africa in October to investigate torture, says there appears to be a lack of seriousness on the part of authorities in dealing with this matter. "It's only in publicised cases like the recent North East Rand Dog Unit incident when they can be seen to be addressing the problem.
"But despite this reaction and the government's efforts to retrain and improve resources for law enforcement agencies, public perception has been that a clear and consistent message condemning these practices is lacking," she adds.
"This failure, combined with the deficient resources for monitoring bodies like the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), contribute to the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators.
"The government, which has impressively led worldwide efforts to establish an international criminal court to try those responsible for grave human rights crimes, needs to demonstrate the same tough determination to eradicate torture within the country."
The AI delegation that visited South Africa is expected to release its report early next year.
Duxita Mistry, senior researcher for the Institute for Human Rights and Criminal Justice Studies, says: "The ICD is under-resourced, and doesn't have the capacity to monitor torture. They are overwhelmed just by deaths in police custody, they can't even cope with that.
"Bodies like the civilian Secretariat for Safety and Security are also an oversight mechanism, but they are barely visible and have really fizzled out. They don't have enough investigators, their budgets are too small, and they don't have enough money for research or to have an office in every province.
"The community policing forums would have been another vehicle to monitor police brutality and torture but the public seems to have lost interest in them," Mistry adds.
However, Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete's spokesperson, Andre Martin, says any form of brutality or torture in the SA Police Service is strongly condemned. "We have not seen the Amnesty International report, and because we do not know what they base their findings on, it's difficult to comment.
"The torture of suspects is strictly forbidden in terms of the prevention of torture policy of the SAPS. Action is taken against any member found guilty of such an offence," Martin adds.
"We have several mechanisms and programmes in place to ensure incidents of this nature do not occur, such as the Independent Complaints Directorate, the Office of the Inspector-General, a code of conduct, and human rights training. The department is very serious about ensuring that incidents of torture and brutality do not occur and is committed to dealing with it effectively."
Gareth Newham, a criminal-justice policy researcher for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, agrees with AI's concerns about human rights abuses.
"The torture policy that is in place at the moment is very bureaucratic," he says, "and what tends to happen is that police opt to torture suspects outside of the station's precincts. There is a variation in the level of skills, and in some areas, very little has changed. You still find station commanders who aren't too concerned about complaints of police torture or brutality."
Newham suggests that the most effective way to fight abuses would be to have an internal mechanism, such as a central database, in place where individuals or units who have a high number of complaints are investigated.
* Sapa reports that the treatment of migrants in South Africa is the subject of an SA Human Rights Commission report to be released in Johannesburg next week. In a statement on Friday, the HRC expressed "critical human rights concerns" at practices relating to the treatment of migrants - illegal or otherwise.
"The recently publicised attack by members of the North East Rand Dog Unit on three suspected illegal migrants once again demonstrated the vulnerability to abuse and exploitation of those who have the misfortune of being in South Africa illegally," the HRC said.
The commission said the report would help to ensure that "the treatment of migrants in SA, a phenomenon that will increasingly test our commitment to human rights, is in accordance with the imperatives of the constitution and is sensitive to the leading role we have sought to take on human rights issues internationally".
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