YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

South African Police Called Out of Control : Arrests: Nation's leading pathologist contends officers are killing at least one black suspect a week.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — This country's most prominent independent pathologist, a strong supporter of President Frederik W. de Klerk, charged Sunday that the South African police are "totally out of control" and are killing at least one black suspect a week.

"The killing goes on and on and on," said Dr. Jonathan Gluckman, who said he has examined the bodies of about 200 victims of police torture in the past few years. "I don't know how to stop it. I don't think the government knows how to stop it."

The accusations by the Johannesburg pathologist, who went public after repeated private appeals to De Klerk and senior government officials went unheeded, were the latest in a series of attacks on the credibility of South Africa's national law enforcement agency.

A spokesman for Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel said Sunday that the department "regards this matter very seriously." And, in response to Gluckman's accusations, the minister has ordered an internal report on every death in police custody for the last two years.

The allegations are certain to embarrass the government and to increase pressure on De Klerk to restart the constitutional negotiations that will give the voteless black majority a role in supervising the police.

Last week, an independent British expert, invited by the South African police to assess their investigation of last month's Boipatong massacre, concluded that the probe was "woefully inadequate" and "incompetent."

The expert, Peter Waddington, director of criminal justice studies at Reading University in England, criticized, among other things, the police's "confession-oriented" investigative technique, which he said invites allegations of police torture of suspects.

"The imperative to seek confessions lies in the fact that there is precious little prospect of obtaining evidence by other means," Waddington said. He noted that police investigating the massacre of more than 40 blacks in Boipatong had not bothered to collect fingerprints, blood samples or other evidence that might help identify perpetrators or secure convictions in court.

Waddington also said he saw "an obvious and significant difference" between the way officers treated the Boipatong victims and witnesses, most of whom are supporters of the African National Congress, and the way they treated suspects in the nearby migrant workers' hostel, who support the Inkatha Freedom Party, an ANC rival. He said the police seemed more intent on preventing Boipatong residents from launching a revenge attack than on finding the attackers.

Gluckman, 77, one of the country's most widely respected pathologists, went public with his allegations in the Sunday Times, South Africa's largest-circulation newspaper, and in a later interview with this newspaper.

He said he had examined the bodies of more than 200 blacks who died in police custody in recent years. Of those, he said, "I am convinced that 90% were killed by the police. My impression is that they (the police) are totally out of control."

It was the first time Gluckman had made such a broad allegation, although he has frequently testified on behalf of the families of victims.

In his most famous case, he attended the state's post-mortem examination of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko in 1977. At the Biko inquiry, the government attributed the activist's death to natural causes, while Gluckman testified that Biko had been beaten to death.

Gluckman said he decided to go public and open all his files to news reporters after examining the body of 19-year-old Simon Mthimkulu, who was arrested by police in Sebokeng last Sunday afternoon and died hours later.

"That finished me off," Gluckman said. "It was so horrifying. Here was a young boy who had done nothing. He was an onlooker.

"And police chasing car thieves had picked him up and beaten him to death," Gluckman charged.

The autopsy indicated that Mthimkulu had been hit with a large object, probably a rock, in the chest. His fingers also had been broken, apparently with a rifle butt, Gluckman said.

Gluckman wrote a personal letter expressing his concerns to De Klerk six months ago. The president arranged a meeting with Kriel, the minister of law and order, and Adriaan Vlok, the prisons chief. Although the officials expressed dismay at the doctor's findings, Gluckman said, "they have done nothing."

Gluckman said he is a strong supporter of De Klerk, and he said he also has found top police officials to be "a first-class bunch." But he said the leaders seem powerless to stop the cop on the beat from killing suspects.

"The African National Congress says this is De Klerk's fault. That isn't right," Gluckman said. "But the mechanism is such that De Klerk and top officials cannot exert sufficient control on the cop in the veld. This is happening at the grass roots."

Government critics say the police are incapable of investigating themselves.

"An internal police investigation will not clear up suspicions," said Peter Gastrow of the Democratic Party. "Credible outsiders should be part of an open investigation."

Los Angeles Times Articles