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Time to rethink SA's use of electric shock equipment
8 July 2016

Allegations of ill treatment by police and correctional officials are not unusual in South Africa. This contravenes international conventions, regional standards and national legislation aimed to prevent and prohibit torture.

Torture does not happen in isolation. There are many techniques and means by which pain and suffering are inflicted on suspects, convicted inmates and others deprived of their liberty. While some less lethal restraint devices may have a legitimate role to play in law enforcement work, other types of electric shock equipment have been implicated in serious abuses – at times amounting to torture.

South Africa has an obligation to prevent and prohibit torture as a state party to international conventions – such as the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – and through its commitment to regional and sub-regional standards and norms.

South Africa also has its own legislation aimed at preventing torture. The Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act 13 of 2013 provides for the prosecution of any person who commits, attempts to commit, or incites, instigates, commands or procures any person to commit torture. If found guilty, the offender is on conviction ‘liable to imprisonment, including imprisonment for life’.

The use of electric shock equipment has been implicated in serious abuses
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In July 1999, standing orders came into effect to implement the Policy on the Prevention of Torture and Treatment of Persons in Custody of the South African Police Service (SAPS). The policy prohibits SAPS members from committing or being complicit in torture, with no exception.

According to the 2014/15 annual report of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, which provides independent oversight of the police, there were no criminal convictions in South Africa for torture in that year; however, there were four cases of torture on the court roll during the same period.

In spite of South Africa’s anti-torture legislation and policies, there have been reports of the use of electric shock equipment linked to acts of torture by the SAPS. In 2015, 10 SAPS members were charged with the murder and torture of Khuthazile Mbendu. Mbendu died on 8 December 2014, after allegedly being beaten and tortured with a ‘tazer’ shock device en route to the police station.

There is limited information on the use of electric shock devices by the SAPS; the types of devices used; and whether they are authorised for use in the first place. However, incidents such as this provide some insight.

There are many cases of electric shock devices being used to coerce compliance
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Although not officially sanctioned, it is believed that some SAPS officials carry personal shock-emitting equipment or devices. The use of wired projectile electric shock weapons by police officials should be strictly regulated to ensure such weapons are always deployed lawfully, with proportionate force, and to the minimum extent necessary.

In addition to problems with the misuse of law enforcement equipment by police, there are reports of unlawful beatings and assault by guards in South African prisons, which also include the use of electric shock devices. It is not always clear how these shocks are administered, but it could entail the use of stun shields, stun belts or hand-held electronic immobilising stun devices.

Electric shock belts and other forms of stun devices have been available for use in South African prisons since 1999. Electrified riot shields have been supplied to the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) as early as 1994. There has been little published research on the safety of using stun shields. Physical effects can, however, include burns, damage to sensitive areas, spinal injuries, secondary injuries caused by falling and even death.

There are many documented cases of electric shock devices being used in South African prisons to extract confessions, coerce compliance or punish inmates. However, under Article 18 of the 2004 Correctional Services Regulations, as amended, ‘electronically activated high security transport belts’ are available for use by a correctional official ‘for the purpose of restraining a prisoner when outside a cell’ and during ‘transfer/escorting’. The DCS policy states that stun belts ‘must only be used in the most extreme cases’.

SA must uphold the rights of inmates and detainees to not be subjected to torture
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Even if the electric shock component of a stun belt is never triggered, knowing that the device can at any moment deliver a painful shock, among other physical effects, causes profound mental suffering.

The only other electric shock devices currently authorised for use in prisons are stun shields and ‘hand-held electronic immobilizing stun devices’. It is not clear what the latter means, although it likely refers to stun guns or stun batons.

In response to a request for information from the Omega Research Foundation, the DCS stated that although hand-held electronic immobilising stun devices are approved for use, none are currently being used by the department. The heads of South Africa’s correctional centres are obliged to report the use of force and mechanical restraints on inmates to the Inspecting Judge for Correctional Services.

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services has previously noted with concern the ‘general disregard by many heads of centres of their responsibility in this regard’. This makes it difficult to estimate how widely electric shock devices are used in prisons.

A number of legal cases linked to the abuse by means of electric shock devices and other forms of ill treatment in South African prisons have been launched against officials. One example is a class action lawsuit in which at least 50 inmates allege being tortured by prison guards at British security firm G4S’ Mangaung Correctional Centre, near Bloemfontein. Their claims include being subjected to electric shocks and forcibly injected with drugs. Inmate Mzwi Shabalala spoke of the treatment at Mangaung: ‘The warders are very violent here and use shock shields regularly… I’ve had blood in my urine after being shocked at high voltage.’

The use of electric shock equipment by correctional officials in South Africa, and to a lesser extent by the SAPS, has frequently been at odds with the aim of minimising injury and preventing torture.

South Africa must uphold the rights of inmates and detainees to not be subjected to torture and other forms of abuse. As stated by the then chairperson of South Africa’s National Assembly Committee on Correctional Services in 2011, electric shock equipment should be banned in prisons, and more humane means of restraint and control be found.

Omega Research Foundation and Mothepa Shadung, Junior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime division, ISS Pretoria

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