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4 S. African Officers in Dog Attack Sentenced

Courts: The white policemen receive prison terms of four to five years for setting canines on three black Mozambican migrants in 1998.

November 30, 2001|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Four white police officers received prison terms of four to five years Thursday for setting their dogs on three black Mozambican immigrants in an animal training exercise described by a high court judge as cowardly, brutal and cruel.

"They completely disregarded the humanity of the three victims," Judge Willie van der Merwe said as he passed sentence. He accused the South African officers of abusing their authority while regarding the incident as a joke.

"The three [victims] are clearly emotionally scarred, and it was obviously intensely traumatic," Van der Merwe said.

Relatives of the officers reacted with shock and anger at the sentencing. One woman in the public gallery screamed of the ruling: "They are crazy!" Others broke down and cried.

Political observers and social commentators said the January 1998 crime showed that racism and police brutality, legacies of South Africa's apartheid past, had survived the end of white minority rule.

"Clearly the fact that these types of actions still take place within the South African Police Service seven years after the first democratic elections indicates that the SAPS has not been fully transformed," said Annelize van Wyk, a spokeswoman for the United Democratic Movement, an opposition party.

Jacobus Smith, 31; Robert Henzen, 32; Eugene Truter, 28; and Lodewyk Koch, 32, were convicted last week of grievously assaulting the undocumented immigrants.

Smith, labeled the ringleader by the judge, was given a prison term of seven years, but two years were suspended. Each of the other officers was sentenced to four years.

Two other policemen have pleaded not guilty and will stand trial next year.

All six men--members of a canine unit in the greater Johannesburg area--were suspended without pay last year after their arrest and shortly before a television station broadcast a videotape of the incident. Some of the officers subsequently resigned.

The victims--Gabriel Pedro Timane, Alexandre Pedro Timane and Sylvester Cose--were not allowed to speak to the media after the sentencing. They are in a witness protection program.

Their lawyer, Jose Nascimento, told reporters at the courthouse in Pretoria that his clients felt justice had been served. However, they will seek substantial damages from the state and the officers in civil cases, he said.

"They have been traumatized for life," Nascimento said. "They will never be able to see a dog and a policeman again without it having some sort of psychological impact on them."

Nascimento has advised his clients to return to Mozambique as soon as possible for their safety.

The six officers were captured on the videotape ordering the dogs to attack the immigrants. The snarl of German shepherds and screams for mercy of the Mozambicans could be heard as the policemen laughed, shouted orders and kicked the men. The session lasted about an hour.

The officers argued during the trial that the incident was an exercise aimed at teaching one of their dogs to bite on command. Such sessions had been common for years, the officers said.

The practice was known as "tasting blood," and undocumented immigrants were prime targets because they were unlikely to complain, said one witness, also a policeman.

But Van der Merwe, the judge, said the act "was cruel and sadistic. . . . It must have been terrifying."

Even if such "practice sessions" existed, it did not lessen the seriousness of the crime, said the judge, who criticized the police service for not bringing the practice to light.

The videotape was reportedly shown at police parties. A fellow officer ultimately exposed his colleagues' actions.

National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi welcomed the sentences and called on the community not to judge all officers by the actions of a few.

*

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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