Victims of police brutality in Swaziland cannot get treatment for their injuries in hospitals and health centres in the kingdom, unless they have written authority from the police themselves.
Medics are so scared of the consequences of helping patients without the authority of the police that injuries can go untreated.
Even non-governmental organisations that support human rights are scared to help the injured, and when they suspect that police brutality is to blame they will not make detailed examinations and give medical reports that would help to provide evidence of abuse.
Now, Musa Hlophe, the leader of one of Swaziland’s most prominent human rights organisations, is calling for doctors to be open and honest and report police abuse.
Writing in his weekly column in the Times Sunday newspaper in Swaziland, Hlophe, the coordinator of the Swaziland Coalition for Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO), related the case of a group of young people who had been brutalised by police last week, after they were taken in for interrogation following incidents of criminal damage.
He wrote, ‘Some of the men were not only questioned but they also claim that they were quite severely physically threatened, beaten with an open hand and closed fists and they allegedly had their heads put inside plastic bags and were suffocated to the point of terror.
‘All the time they were being questioned, they claim the police were continually telling them about the people who had already died in their cells when they did not cooperate.
‘They claim the police boasted that nobody could prosecute them since they would simply find the dockets and tear them up. They allegedly said they feared nobody and were above the law.’
Hlophe and SCCCO later met the men. He wrote, ‘Obviously, we needed to get the men who had been beaten some medical attention, and this is where things get interesting. At Raleigh Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Manzini, nobody was even prepared to treat them.
‘When they told the medics of the nature of their injuries and their causes, they were sent from department to department and told to wait until it became obvious that they were not going to be treated. They eventually got the message and left. The problem in Swaziland with assault injuries is that you usually need a form from the police before the Medics can treat you.
‘The police are not going to give you a form when they are the ones who assaulted you in the first place, will they?’
‘So, in exasperation, the men came to my office and we thought we could try some of the non-governmental organisations that also give medical services. We tried both Baylor Clinic in Mbabane and Médiciens Sans Frontièrs (Doctors Without Borders) in Matsapha.
‘We were relieved that these organisations were prepared to treat the men for their injuries but we were shocked neither of them was prepared to go any further and provide a more detailed examination, which we could use to, not only heal these men’s bodies but to protect their human rights and find for them some sort of useable, independent evidence of the abuses they had suffered.
‘We provided the MSF doctors with written advice from a colleague of ours who is an Independent Forensic Pathologist and who has expertise in dealing with exactly these sorts of cases. Our local NGO doctors flatly refused to carry out any of his suggested additional tests or examinations. They had “orders” from above.
‘We even went to a local Swazi doctor and offered to pay him but he refused: he simply did not want to get involved in any way with challenging the government in court.’
Hlophe said that NGOs in Swaziland, where King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, were no allowed to get involved in ‘politics’.
Hlophe wrote, ‘Now, in Swaziland, what we call “politics” is not really politics at all. In most countries ‘politics’ is the contesting for power by an organisation.
‘Around here, any form of questioning of the government is deemed a political act. In any normal country, questioning the government is seen as an act of citizenship, not betrayal. However, questioning the government over policy is one thing, what we have here is ignoring some serious breaches of freedoms that are in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and are attacks on the local defenders of these rights.’
He added, ‘I think the directors of these NGOs need to meet with some of us human rights defenders in the country to establish a protocol for medical examinations for victims of alleged state brutality. The government will then be placed in a position. If it wants to continue to ask for these organisations’ help in dealing with the worst HIV, AIDS and TB crises, the world has ever seen, it must allow them to report on allegations about its police officers’ abuses, beatings and strangling of suspects.
‘If there is something or nothing, in the allegations, the doctors can, and must, say so. The people I work for want to deal with the truth, not propaganda. If the evidence of abuse is there, we need doctors to tell us so.’
He added, ‘It is not enough to heal the sick or the injured when you have an option to prevent them coming to harm.
‘To me, accurately reporting on injuries obtained as a result of human rights abuses is a valid public health intervention.’
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