KZN men awarded R3.6m after 7-year prison ordeal before acquittal
Two KwaZulu-Natal men, who spent just short of seven years in custody before being acquitted of charges of rape and other crimes, have each been awarded R3.6m in damages.
Siyabonga Latha and Mthandeni Hlongwa were 25 years old when they were arrested in 2006.
"They were approximately 32 years old by the time they were released (upon acquittal in May 2013). Six years and eleven months is indeed a long time to be deprived of one's liberty and personal freedom. It is also a long time to be deprived of an opportunity to establish a career, to strengthen personal relationships and in general, to create a sense of self-worth and well-being," Judge Rishi Seegobin of the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg said in his judgment.
In 2016, Latha and Hlongwa sued the ministers of police, justice, correctional services and the National Director of Public Prosecutions, for past and future loss of earnings, malicious arrest and detention, deprivation of freedom, impairment to dignity and general damages for psychological trauma.
The ministers conceded liability for their claim in May this year and the matter went to trial on for the amount of damages to be determined.
During their evidence, they spoke of how they had been taken to a sugar cane field and tortured. A police dog was set on Latha and he suffered serious bite wounds.
They were also assaulted while detained at Tongaat and Ndwedwe police stations before being held at Westville Prison while their trial - which took five years - proceeded.
Under cross-examination, both conceded that they had been arrested for other, unrelated offences, prior to this.
In fact, they argued, their alibi was that in respect of some of the charges levelled at them, they were in custody for other offences, but the police had refused to investigate this.
The judge said he had no qualms in accepting that both had been subjected to "the most humiliating, degrading and dehumanising treatment at the hands of the police".
"This took the form of severe assaults: First at their respective places of residence and thereafter in the sugarcane fields at Buffelsdale. It was here that the barrel of a gun was placed in Latha's mouth with a threat that he would be shot.
"It was also here that a rope was attached to his handcuffs and a police dog set on him. Even though he received treatment at the Osindisweni Hospital for his dog bite injuries, this treatment was carried out without any anaesthetic."
Judge Seegobin said assaults continued throughout their detention in the police cells.
"While their request to be transferred to the Westville Prison was acceded to, the conditions to which they were subjected there were nothing short of appalling: The cells were overcrowded with 40 to 60 inmates being housed in a single cell; the cells were filthy, unhygienic and infested with lice and cockroaches; only 20 beds were to be found in these cells with the rest of the inmates having to sleep on the floor on thin mattresses and use filthy blankets."
He said they both became victims of gangsterism and while Latha was "brave enough" enough not to succumb to "options" given to him by a gang "general", and was moved to another cell with better conditions, Hlongwa was not that fortunate.
"His request for a transfer was denied by the prison warders. He then elected to stab an inmate so as to ensure his acceptance by the gang. This stabbing of course resulted in him being severely assaulted by the warders and being placed in solitary confinement for a period of 30 days."
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