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South African Police Officers Charged with Murder

South African police officers arrested on suspicion of murder appear for bail hearing east of Johannesburg on March 11, 2013. Nine South African policemen pleaded not guilty to charges of murdering a Mozambican taxi driver who has handcuffed and dragged behind a police vehicle.
Nine South African police officers appeared for a bail hearing Monday in Johannesburg after being charged with murder in the death of the taxi driver, a Mozambican immigrant. Mido Macia, a 27-year old taxi driver, died last month after being arrested by police in eastern Johannesburg. Police had said he was resisting arrest for parking his taxi illegally.

Macia is one of hundreds of people who die at the hands of South African police each year. But his case has drawn international attention, because one enterprising eyewitness filmed police dragging the young man through the street from the back of a police van. Macia died later that day in police custody.

An autopsy report read in court Monday said he died of lack of oxygen. The report, read by the prosecutor, also noted he had lacerations on his head, scalp and jaw, and abrasions on his face, legs, arms and back.

There are three main issues in this case, said South African Human Rights Commission CEO Kayum Ahmed. The primary problem, he said, is that police are failing to obey their mandate to protect human rights. He also criticized police for their history of treating immigrants differently, and said he was concerned that the crowd around Macia was too afraid to act as he was being dragged.

His organization has found police are trained in human rights issues, and so he believes the fundamental problem lies with top leadership.

“If we assume that police officers are taught about human rights principles and we assume that most police officers are essentially interested in upholding the law and in justice, I believe that the reason why some police officers are unable to apply these principles and values must be because of the challenges at the leadership level within in the police, as opposed to a compassion deficit perhaps amongst police officers. It is probably more a question of a leadership deficit," Ahmed said.

Police in South Africa drew strong criticism last August when they fired on striking miners at a platinum mine, killing 34 of them. Police came under new scrutiny last month when it was revealed the lead detective in case of case of athlete Oscar Pistorius, who is accused of murdering his girlfriend, was facing seven counts of attempted murder for opening fire on a minibus.

The nation’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate has said deaths in police custody or as a result of police action have fallen 10 percent. But in the past year, the Independent Complaints Directorate documented 720 such deaths. The agency said that number was “unacceptably high.”

A spokesman for the directorate declined to comment when asked what police should to do bring that figure down.