Legal concerns over treatment of church refugees
Johannesburg, South Africa
03 February 2008 07:36
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There are serious legal concerns over the treatment of immigrants who were arrested this week at the Central Methodist church in the Johannesburg CBD, the Legal Resource Centre (LRC) said on Saturday.
Detainees were apparently delayed in receiving medical and legal assistance, appeared to have been physically mistreated and were allegedly asked for bribes by police, said LRC director Janet Love.
She also said the LRC was concerned at the vagueness of charges brought against the detainees and the apparent lack of preparation by the prosecution and police before their first court appearance.
The LRC was appointed as legal representation for the detainees after the church -- known as a haven for Zimbabwean refugees -- was "raided" by police on Wednesday night. More than 300 people were arrested and held at the Johannesburg Central police station.
Love said legal representatives were told the church offered shelter and basic sustenance on a nightly basis to homeless people, including many immigrants and asylum seekers.
The LRC was asked to consult those arrested and, if they so requested, seek their release on bail.
Love said a team of lawyers that went to the police station where the accused were held found a nurse from Médecins sans Frontières trying to get access to the cells to determine the health status of the detainees.
"Extensive delays were experienced in obtaining access to the police cells in order to consult with the detainees. Initially access was refused but, after three telephone calls and the threat of an urgent application to the high court being lodged, it was eventually agreed that we could consult with the detainees in groups of no more than six at a time."
Love said various junior police officers indicated that a number of the detainees might be transferred directly to Lindela repatriation centre without appearing in court.
She said that at the court, LRC lawyers found a clerk preparing 19 warrants for detention -- known as J7 forms. LRC lawyers apparently found that 12 forms had already been completed, indicating that "no bail" had been granted, despite the fact there had been no bail application yet.
When queried about this, the clerk said it was "an error" and prepared new forms. "However, only 15 of the 19 prisoners appeared."
Love said that when the defence team requested permission to consult the accused, the magistrate first denied this because she said there was not enough time and then again denied it because she said there was no interpreter -- "this despite the fact the accused had said they did not need interpretation".
The magistrate finally allowed a "five minute" adjournment to allow the defence to consult with the accused.
During this consultation, all the accused waived their right of interpretation and indicated that they wanted to apply for bail.
Love said the prosecution allegedly did not know the specific wording of charges under the Immigration Act, saying only that the charge against the accused was for "being illegal" under section 49 of the Act.
According to Love, the prosecutor said she opposed bail but could not proceed with the bail hearing because the investigating officer was not there.
Love said the magistrate allegedly spoke to the accused in an "aggressive manner", sometimes repeatedly asking whether an accused spoke English or Shona with "increasing aggression and loudness".
"The defence counsel objected to this procedure on the basis that all the accused had indicated that they wished the proceedings to be conducted in English. These objections were not acknowledged."
A postponement to the matter until Monday was eventually granted, despite fierce opposition by the defence. For example, one accused was due to have an operation on a scrotal hernia on Monday.
Love said the postponement put the liberty of the accused at stake, and that it had been indicated to the counsel in chambers that the matter should be postponed because "the officers of the court wished to go home to be with their families".
She also said LRC lawyers were allegedly variously by the magistrate to "sit down -- I don't want to hear you any further", before the magistrate apparently "simply started doing paperwork on the bench when defence arguments were being made".
LRC said other lawyers had been contacted to help with the court appearances on Monday.
On Friday, Central Methodist Church Bishop Paul Verryn said the detainees had been denied adequate food and water.
He said the people arrested were in exile in South Africa from African countries, particularly Zimbabwe, and they were allegedly assaulted and their property destroyed during the raid.
Verryn said that although the police were looking for criminals in the building, "they themselves became the perpetrators of criminal action". -- Sapa