A South African police raid that put hundreds of Zimbabwean migrants behind bars in Johannesburg Central Police Station has sparked accusations of misconduct and human rights violations.
Five hundred people, most believed to be Zimbabwean, were arrested late on Wednesday night at a Methodist Church in Johannesburg's inner-city. For the past four years the church has been a haven for Zimbabweans escaping their country's economic meltdown.
Home Affairs spokesperson Mantshele Tau confirmed that his department had provided support to the police, but said it had not been a Home Affairs or immigration initiative.
According to Johannesburg police spokesperson Captain Bhekizizwe Mavundla, the church was not specifically targeted but part of a larger operation in the area looking at illegally occupied buildings. He said the police only entered the church after community members alleged some of the church's residents were involved in crime.
Mavundla said it was this - and not the church's work with illegal migrants - that prompted the raid, and that some people at the church had been arrested for theft and drug possession. He could not confirm how many had been arrested for immigration matters.
"Police will only go inside the church to arrest suspects or criminals," he said. "It is our business to maintain the church's image for the whole of society; a church is a church."
But Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn said police had acted irresponsibly, and could have avoided storming the grounds with pepper spray and dogs. "They should have come to us the very minute they heard complaints and substantiated them," he said. "We know people have problems, but I don't ask everyone who comes through my door what they've been doing."
Human rights complaints
Verryn and his staff have filed complaints with the South African police oversight body, the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), regarding police behaviour during and since the raid, claiming that "What started at the church has not stopped."
He alleged that those arrested continue to be beaten and taunted by police, and pleas for the police to retrieve immigration papers from the church have been ignored.
There were also reports from South Africa's Legal Resource Centre (LRC) that police were briefly denied lawyers access to the accused. Despite police assurances that people who had been arrested would begin appearing in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court by Thursday, the LRC said only 50 dockets, all for immigration-related offences, had been delivered to the court by midday Friday.
According to police spokesperson Director Govindsamy Mariemuthoo said that under South African law those arrested must appear in court within 48 hours, unless that time falls outside the court's normal hours. Following this, the migrants can legally be held until Monday afternoon.
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, of Lawyers for Human Rights, said in a statement that the raid highlighted human rights violations much larger than those contained in the raid itself.
"A number of documented persons were arrested, along with persons who had either received an appointment to lodge their asylum claims at the Department of Home Affairs, or were in the process of lodging these claims," he said. "Home Affairs failed to issue any documentation to these persons indicating their immigration status in the country."
The Johannesburg Refugee Reception Office remains closed, despite several High Court orders mandating its reopening, forcing all asylum seekers to queue for weeks at the nearest office, which is about 40km away in South Africa's capital, Pretoria.
The AIDS lobby group, Treatment Action Campaign, issued a statement in response to the raid calling for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to intervene on the behalf of the people who had been taken into custody.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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