South African police Thursday released six men who were accused of gang-raping a nine-month-old baby. The charges against them were dropped after DNA tests failed to link the men to the crime. The brutal assault on the infant horrified the nation, and it now appears the real attackers are still at large.
DNA tests appear to have exonerated the six men accused of raping a nine-month-old infant in October, in the sleepy Northern Cape town of Upington.
Their lawyer, Albert van Zyl, said none of his clients' DNA matches that of the real rapists. Prosecutors have dropped the charges against all six men due to lack of evidence. Five of them have walked free, while the sixth is still being held on other, unrelated charges.
The victim of the brutal crime has been dubbed "Baby Tshepang" because her real name cannot be revealed. The name Tshepang means "have hope" in the local language, seSotho.
South Africa has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, and even the government acknowledges that rape is an all-too-common event. But the plight of Baby Tshepang has galvanized the country, touching even the most jaded South Africans.
The announcement of the DNA test results sparked immediate criticism from opposition parties, who accuse police and prosecutors of bungling the investigation.
Opposition leaders are asking - why did six apparently innocent men have to spend more than two months in jail? And if they did not rape Baby Tshepang, who did?
Community leaders are worried the real rapist or rapists are still at large. The Northern Cape provincial government has offered a $23,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the real criminals.
Despite the DNA test results, the accused men's lawyer said he is worried about their safety when they return home to try to rebuild their lives. They have been accused of a horrific crime, and the lawyer fears many of their neighbors might have already convicted them, without waiting for a trial.
In such a sensitive, high profile case, he said, that presumption of guilt could put their lives at risk.
It appears to be a legitimate concern. Emotions are running high, and an angry crowd gathered outside the courthouse in the provincial capital of Kimberly before the men were scheduled to be released. Some of the protesters said they did not believe the DNA results, and they wanted the men to remain in jail. Others, however, said they now believe the men are innocent, and they have welcomed them with open arms.
South African authorities are appealing to the community to respect the court's decision. They pledge to bring the real rapists to justice.
As for the victim, Baby Tshepang remains in a Cape Town hospital, where she was transferred for special surgery. A hospital spokeswoman says the infant is recovering well, but will need at least one more operation before she, too, can go back home.