The government is releasing some of South Africa's most hardened murderers and rapists without notifying the families of their victims, some of whom learned for the first time this week that the criminals were walking free. Photo: Independent Newspapers

The government is releasing some of South Africa’s most hardened murderers and rapists without notifying the families of their victims, some of whom learned for the first time this week that the criminals were walking free.

Opposition parties have reacted furiously to circumstances surrounding the controversial decision by the Department of Correctional Services to consider parole for 385 prisoners who were on death row during the apartheid years.

Their sentences were commuted to life in 1994 and last month, after a Constitutional Court case, they were deemed to be eligible to be considered for parole.

However, there was confusion over whether Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula had sole prerogative to decide on who would be released.

Now the department has been slammed for denying information to victims’ families about who would be granted parole and when.

DA spokesman James Selfe criticised the apparent haste with which Mapisa-Nqakula seemed to be “steamrolling” the process of reviewing parole for the offenders.

He questioned why there had been no attempt to contact victims or their families.

A press and radio advert this month called for “victim participation in the parole consideration of offenders, especially those sentenced to life before March 1, 1994”.

But the department this week conceded that the names of some offenders might be missing from the list, and could still be added.

Selfe questioned whether the cut-off date for submissions by victims, May 15, was not “impossibly tight”. He said because adverts were placed so recently he had “grave doubts” that victims of the applicants would learn of the minister’s plans before the cut-off date.

“I fear this is just another sham... I’d like to know what attempts the department will make, over and above placing ads that many will not see, to track down victims and hear what they have to say.”

Jeremy Gordin, director of the Wits Justice Project which investigates miscarriages of justice, described the process associated with the parole as a “complete mess” .

“The entire issue has been terribly badly handled.”

Koos van der Merwe, IFP MP, said: “The department needs to publish this widely in as many media as possible and make it easier for the public to access, including on TV.”

He said if the department failed to follow correct parole procedures the consequences would be “dire”.

One potential parolee is Thembisile Jackson Tshandu, now 58, who raped and murdered Tamsyn Garth-Davis, 9, in Knysna in 1991. The child was strangled with the straps of her school satchel.

Jo-Ann Downs, national chairman of the African Christian Democratic Party, reacted with fury to news of the parole review.

“It is absolutely outrageous,” she said. “The public has an inalienable right to know who is being released, and when. We must be given the chance to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”

Independent violence monitor Mary De Haas described the parole process as “flawed”: “It is simply iniquitous for the department to spend huge amounts of money on placing ads that most people will not read. It is absolutely chaotic. It is high time they got out there and tracked down the families of victims, so that they can be given a fair chance to respond to the proposal of parole.”

The Tribune located the families of two murder victims in Durban area without much difficulty. The families of Sonya Austin, 40, stabbed to death by the so-called “Phoenix Five” in her Morningside home in 1987, and Omar Azmuth, 54, who was shot at his garage in Reservoir Hills during a robbery in 1989, were stunned to learn the killers could be up for parole.

Advisor to the minister Mike Ramagoma yesterday confirmed that no attempts had been made to contact victims’ families directly.

“Information relating to victims of crime is not kept by our department,” he said.

“That resides with the police and the legal system. However, we attempted to list all those being considered for parole, to give the public a chance to make representation, whether they are victims or other interested parties.

“We are trying very hard to ensure that all the relevant parole boards consider the applications speedily, and we hope to meet our original deadline of May 15 to complete the current applications. When those are finalised we will look at a new batch.”

Ramagoma said “around 285” of the 385 applications still needed to be processed. “It is an interdepartmental process that will not be shared with the media,” he said. “We will release the figures on request, but no other information.”

Department spokesman Sonwabo Mbananga said that the minister had so far reviewed 88 of the 385 applications.

He said the first group to have their parole approved had already been processed and met all requirements for consideration.

He refused to reveal the names of those who had already been found eligible for parole, or the nature of their crimes.

“We originally announced that 95 would be considered in the first batch, but it was determined that seven did not qualify as having been sentenced prior to March 1, 1994. Accordingly, only 88 applications were considered. Of these 43 were declined, 21 were granted full parole and a further 24 have been granted day parole to go out into the community to seek work and bond with relatives, and return to prison to sleep at night.”

Of the 385 parole applications, 66 are from KwaZulu-Natal, 59 are from the Eastern Cape, 41 from the Western Cape, 72 from the Free State, 106 from Gauteng, and 41 from Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

Mbananga said released prisoners would be monitored for three years, and not for the rest of their lives, as has usually been the case.- Sunday Tribune