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Dragging death further stains South African police force

In this still frame from TV, courtesy of the South African Daily Sun newspaper, a South African man is shown with his hands tethered to the back of a police vehicle being dragged behind as police hold his legs up and the vehicle apparently drives off.

THE DAILY SUN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The police approached Mido Macia for a minor offence: His mini-bus taxi was parked illegally. A few minutes later, he was being dragged violently along the pavement, handcuffed helplessly to the back of a police vehicle. Within two hours, he was dead.

The shocking episode, witnessed by a large crowd and captured on amateur video, has cast an ugly light on the brutality and confusion of South Africa's troubled police force – already under strong criticism after the Marikana massacre and the Oscar Pistorius shooting case.

The death of Mr. Macia, a 27-year-old Mozambican migrant in the township of Daveyton near Johannesburg, quickly dominated the South African media on Thursday and provoked a sharp political reaction. "No human being should be treated in that manner," President Jacob Zuma said.

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"The visuals of the incident are horrific, disturbing and unacceptable," Mr. Zuma said in a statement. He condemned the "brutal killing" and he ordered his Police Minister to investigate. The police were placed under investigation for murder.

The video, taken with a cellphone camera on Tuesday evening, shows a slim man in a dispute with several policemen. He resists detention and they push him toward the back of a marked police van. But instead of putting him into the empty vehicle, they handcuff him to the floor of the van, with his hands over his head and his body on the road.

The crowd shouts its disapproval, but the vehicle deliberately moves off, with the police apparently unconcerned by the crowd of witnesses. Two policemen hold up the man's legs for a while, then drop him to the ground as the vehicle speeds up.

The final cause of Mr. Macia's death is unclear. The amateur video was able to follow him for only a few moments as the police truck dragged him along the road. He was taken to a police station, where he later died of head injuries and internal bleeding, investigators told South African media.

The police involved in the incident told investigators that Mr. Macia grabbed a gun from a policeman during the original altercation. There is no sign of this in the video. By Thursday, angry protesters were gathering at the police station to demand charges against the police.

South Africa's police commissioner announced Friday that the eight officers allegedly involved have been suspended and that the local police commander has been removed from his post. Gen. Riah Phiyega said Friday that she shares "the extreme shock and outrage" over the abuse and supports the investigation by the police watchdog agency.

"When dealing with 200,000 employees, it is never an easy environment," Phiyega said. "There will always be incident such as this."

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Mr. Zuma's government has long been aware of the brutality of its police. The massacre at the Marikana platinum mine, where 34 protesters were shot dead by police last August, was only one example of an ill-disciplined police force that seems to operate with few controls or limits.

In recent years, an average of 700 to 900 people have died annually in police custody or as a result of police behaviour, according to reports by official South African agencies and independent institutes.

In a dramatic incident captured on video in 2011, community activist Andries Tatane died in a protest march after he was attacked by a dozen policemen who clubbed him, kicked him and shot rubber bullets into his chest.

In the case of Mr. Macia, his Mozambican nationality is another layer to the story. Foreign migrants are often beaten or killed in South Africa, while the police often ignore the abuse.

Amnesty International was among those condemning the latest death in police custody. "This appalling incident involving excessive force is the latest in an increasingly disturbing pattern of brutal police conduct in South Africa," said Noel Kututwa, director of Amnesty's program in southern Africa.

"Amnesty International urges the South African government to make a public commitment to ensure that the police stop the use of excessive force and deliberate targeted killings."

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In the Pistorius case, a global audience saw a South African police force in disarray, with a key police investigator admitting a slew of errors in his testimony and then being removed from the case because of the revelation that he was facing seven charges of attempted murder.

The embarrassing errors by investigator Hilton Botha were part of a broader pattern. The last two national police commissioners were dismissed for corruption, and more than 630 police officers were arrested in 2011 in Gauteng province alone, mostly for fraud and corruption.

With a file from Associated Press

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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