FIVE Thaba Tseka residents, four of them employees at a supermarket in the district, have recounted sordid tales of alleged torture at the hands of the police.
The five accused senior police officers of torturing them in a bid to get them to agree to pay off a Chinese businessman who accuses them of theft instead of allowing them to have their day in the courts of law.
The alleged case is the latest in the long line of accusations of brutality that have been levelled at the police service in recent times by the public, governing and opposition parties, civil society organisations and Lesotho’s development partners. Prime Minister Thomas Thabane has however, promised that his government will act to ensure that rogue police officers are brought to book.
In the latest case against the police, the five residents stand accused of stealing groceries from the Chinese businessman who runs a supermarket in Thaba-Tseka. But instead of being taken to the Thaba Tseka Magistrates’ Court, the five were told to pay M13 000 each for allegedly stealing groceries from the supermarket.
Two of the five recently told the Sunday Express that they were accused stealing groceries from the supermarket sometime last month.
“On the 9th of May we were asked to report to the police station where we were briefly interrogated before being told to report the following day,” said one of the suspects.
“The next day we were detained and tortured by the police. We were only released 10 days later on 20 May after a horrific, painful and humiliating experience in the holding cells where we were subjected to constant beatings on the waist and buttocks.
“On the last day in detention at the Thaba Tseka Police Station, we were told to give up our livestock and land to pay the Chinese businessman or risk further detention and beatings.
“One of us gave up his cow, five sheep and five goats; another paid with his cow, five sheep and a donkey while one lady gave up her six sheep, a cow and a donkey,” the source said.
Another source said one of the suspects, who sells food in front of the supermarket, is making frantic efforts to raise the money to pay the Chinese businessman after his land was rejected as compensation on the grounds that it was in a remote area.
“The deal was made at the police station. We were badly beaten up by the police and after beating us up, we were told to each pay M13 000 for our alleged crime. We didn’t even go to the court but the decision to make us pay was taken at the police station by a police officer who will probably share the money with the shop owner,” the source said, adding they were not made to sign any document confirming that they had compensated the shop owner.
However, the Officer Commanding the Thaba Tseka District, Superintendent Thabo Mohai, refuted the allegations that the suspects were tortured and forced to pay the businessman. Supt Mohai said the suspects who had stolen an assortment of goods from the shop owner including groceries and blankets volunteered to repay the businessman and the compensation deal was struck before a prosecutor.
“On 9 May, a businessman reported that some of his employees, working in cahoots with some of the street vendors stationed in front of his supermarket, had stolen from him. Investigations were immediately launched and arrests were made. It was during interrogation that each of the suspects revealed that they had sold the stolen goods to different shops in Thaba Tseka. Some of the stolen goods were recovered,” Supt Mohai said.
He said that the suspects were arrested and detained at the police holding cells on different days and they were taken to court on 29th May 2019. He said it was possible that the suspects were detained for longer than the official 48 hours because of the countrywide magistrates’ go slow strike in May during which many cases were not heard in court.
“The work of the police is to investigate, arrest suspects and take them to court for prosecution. The case was handed over to the prosecutor. Just before they entered the courtroom, the police officer investigating the case informed the prosecutor that the suspects intended to repay the Chinese businessman.
“The businessman submitted his claims for refund and it is possible that he could have asked some of them to pay M13 000 because they didn’t just steal groceries. Blankets were among the stolen items. It was not for the police officer to make the suspects pay but they volunteered to pay and they were told by the shop owner what to pay. The repayment deal was brought up by them and it was made before a prosecutor. So it is not true that they were tortured and forced to pay.”
Supt Mohai said if the suspects had been tortured they should have reported immediately afterwards instead of waiting this long before making the allegations.
The torture allegations are among several cases that have focused the spotlight on the police for brutality against civilians. There have been other cases of torture of suspects and some of the suspects have allegedly died at the hands of the police.
A recent African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) report seen by this publication expresses concern over the “persistent allegations of police brutality” in Lesotho and called on the government to capacitate the relevant institutions to enable them to investigate allegations of human rights violations.
“The government should incorporate the promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights in all its actions as well as in the legal, policy and institutional reforms which would be initiated as a result of the ongoing national dialogue,” the ACHPR report states.
Early last year, then then Police Minister, Ms ’Mampho Mokhele, torched a storm when he publicly admitted that the police used illegal methods including torture to extract confessions from suspects.
Ms Mokhele, who served as a police officer for 37 years, made the revelation at a ceremony where the LMPS was presented with forensic equipment donated by the Algerian government.
She said she hoped the donation would go a long way in removing the need for torture as the police could now use it to determine whether or not a suspect had been involved in the commission of a crime.
“We, as the police, are often forced to use violence to get information out of people because at times we would be sure that the suspect committed the crime but due to lack of tangible evidence we have to use force,” Ms Mokhele said.
Three months ago, the Prime Minister, Thomas Thabane, condemned police brutality and ordered Ms Mokhele to furnish him with a report of how the ministry has dealt with cases of police officers suspected of human rights violations.
Foreign Affairs and International Affairs Minister Lesego Makgothi said that the government was not deaf to the public outcry over the alleged police brutality and it would soon conduct inquests into the alleged civilian deaths and thereafter deal with the “rogue elements within our police service”.
“This (torturing of suspects) is unacceptable and we are going to deal with such officers. We will not allow them to bring the name of the government into disrepute,” Mr Makgothi said.
The United States ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, has also warned that Lesotho risks losing out on the multi-million-dollar second compact under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) due to concerns about “unacceptable” corruption and police brutality against citizens.
“I am deeply concerned about alarming reports of corruption and police brutality – behavior that is unacceptable and non-negotiable. The consequences of an interrupted compact development will not be as serious as the negative impact to the people of Lesotho caused by failure to address these critical issues,” Ms Gonzales said in February.