The inquest into the death in detention of Ash Shaheed Imam Abdullah Haron entered its second week on November 14 with the focus shifting to testimony on torture and the last known police officer to have interacted with the Imam before his death in detention. CASSIEM KHAN reports.
The focus moved from revealing the effects of the torture of the Imam by examining the quality and professionalism lacking in the autopsy to hearing testimonies about the interrogation and torture of other political prisoners.
On Tuesday November 15, Diane Sandler, a clinical psychologist, appeared as a witness for the Haron family.
She is co-author, with Don Foster and Denis Davis, of the book, Detention & Torture in South Africa: Psychological, Legal & Historical Studies, first published in 1987. The book is based on research conducted between 1983 and 1984 with over 200 detainees interviewed across the country.
Her testimony drew from her joint study and she presented the internationally accepted definition of torture:
The term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
It took the death of Steve Biko under torture to prompt the UN General Assembly into drafting and accepting the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which requires state parties to take jurisdiction to punish torture committed within their territory either by or against their nationals.
This convention came seven years after the death in detention of Biko, who is quoted as having said to his torturer:
I ask for water to wash myself with and also soap, a washing cloth and a comb. I want to be allowed to buy food. I live on bread only here. Is it compulsory for me to be naked? I am naked since I came here.
Personal hygiene and cleanliness would have been the highest priority for Imam Haron, as it was for Biko too. For Imam Haron, with ablution as a condition for prayer, this went beyond the personal. Deprivation, whether sensory, food or physical contact, is a technique of torture.
Biko and political prisoners generally in apartheid South Africa were subjected to such inhumane treatment that even if it did not produce the information the security police sought through torture, it was intended to permanently physically and psychologically scar detainees. By 1986, the number of political detainees known to have died in detention stood at 68.
In the Imam Haron inquest, the court asked former political prisoners Robert Wilcox, Yousuf Gabru, Jeremy Cronin, Stephanie Kemp and Shirley Gunn if they were physically harmed. Conditions for torture are that it must result in severe mental and physical suffering, be inflicted intentionally, and be committed by or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official.
The security police, district surgeons and magistrates, are all public officials. From the testimonies of political prisoners, it was clear they all endured physical and mental suffering, that it was inflicted intentionally, and that these public officials delighted in witnessing their victims suffering this pain.
On the stand on days six and seven of the inquest (November 14 15), the only living police officer that had contact with Imam Haron presented his testimony.
Retired with the rank of captain, Johan Burger presented himself as someone who expressed concern about Imam Haron’s well-being. He even shed some tears as he felt the loss of a geestelike persoon (spiritual man) with whom he shared brief chats about family and sport.
He informed the court that when presented, only in 2020, with the diagrams indicating the bruises on Imam’s body, he was shocked and said that Imam was gemartel.
I wondered whether the court and Burger realised the double-meaning of the Afrikaans word gemartel. Burger probably meant ‘tortured’ but it can also mean ‘martyred’, and in Arabic Shaheed; a term of great significance in Islam and often used as a prefix. Hence the Cape Muslim community use this honorific – Ash Shaheed Imam Abdullah Haron.
When probed about whether he saw the Imam ever washing or if there were washing facilities for prisoners at a police precinct at which he worked, Burger’s memory started to evade him. Prisoners are watched whilst washing or showering as this is an opportunity for police to see if any weapons or incriminating materials are concealed. Burger would not have had to wait for a 50-year-old sketch of bruises on Imam’s body to be moved to tears. He would have seen the bruises then, in those remaining hours of the life of the Imam.
Burger claims to have reported the Imam looking fatigued and sluggish in his walk. Still, his attitude was generally one of not getting too involved with political prisoners in the hands of the much-feared security police.
When asked about the notoriety of the security police and particularly Captain JP Spyker van Wyk, he became evasive and even accused the Haron family lawyer, Advocate Howard Varney, of threatening him.
Burger was awarded a medal for fighting terrorism by the apartheid police. One is left to wonder if this award was for inflicting any severe mental or physical pain on any common law or political prisoner intentionally.