Wits Justice Project and Just Detention International - South Africa host a workshop on reporting on torture and sexual abuse in prisons

Think back to the number of times you have heard the word ‘torture’ thrown around casually. A long wait in a queue at the licensing department, for instance, can be loosely described as torture. Sitting in a long and monotonous lecture can be described as torture. Examples like these generally evoke, at least, a mild sense of empathy that stems from their relatability. We can connect with these pains and overlook the hyperbole of describing them as torture. But what exactly is torture apart from a word we throw around almost always indiscriminately? 

According to United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment the legal definition of torture is "[...] 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 does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."

Simply put, torture is the direct or indirect infliction of extreme physical or mental suffering by an authority figure as a means to fulfill a specific purpose.

Last week, the Wits Justice Project (WJP) and Just Detention International South Africa (JDI) hosted a two day workshop for journalists. The purpose of the workshop was to equip journalist with the information and specialised skills required to report on two topics that are severely underreported: torture and sexual abuse in our prisons. The presentations of the day highlighted some of the factors that contribute to the ongoing abuse that goes on behind our prison walls and in police holding cells. 

Torture, in particular, is often clouded by ambiguity as it is often relegated to being recorded as assault despite the distinction between the two. WJP journalist, Azarrah Abdul Karim wrote in an article last year, “Although most people see torture as a thing of the ugly past, it is still very prevalent in police stations and prisons throughout South Africa […] In the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) 2015/2016 Annual Report it is noted that 3,509 cases of assault in police stations were reported and 145 cases of torture. However, only two police officials have been prosecuted for torture under the new act, according to IPID. A R500 and R12,000 fines were imposed, a seemingly quite lenient punishment, given the serious nature of the crime.”

Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) spokesperson says, “the Prevention of Combating and Torture of Persons Act, 2013 is relatively new. Also, Assault is a competent verdict for torture. This means that the charge could be torture however based on the evidence presented the court could pass a verdict of assault/assault GBH (grievous bodily harm).” 

Legally speaking, assault may be considered a competent verdict for torture even though this stance downplays the gravity of torture. Attorney and Head of the Penal Reform Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, Clare Ballard says, “[this] is troubling because with a verdict of assault, we miss out (and thus, in my opinion, neglect to identify) the malignant motives on the part of the state official who is a torturer. “Assault” fails to highlight the abuse of power, the secrecy, and the intention to punish or extort on the part of the official. If we don’t identify these features in our criminal law, we don’t prevent them.” 

While the journalist that attended the WJP and JDI two-day workshop agree that being exposed to some of the content was a shock to the system, it was a necessary evil. One that has inspired others to investigate and write about the criminal justice system. 

Sumeya Gasa

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