Monday, March 30, 2020

Mahalapye family suspects foul play in police-custody suicide

Officially, Oratile Mpitse committed suicide in a cell of the Mahalapye Police Station on December 28, 2019. On the other hand, his family is adamant that he was murdered by the police and have sought the intervention of their MP – who happens to be a lawyer.A family member’s version of events is that a day before he died, Mpitse had a quarrel with his long-time girlfriend. He then confiscated her cellphone, wouldn’t give it back and went to his family home in Mowana Ward. The girlfriend reported the matter to the police who swooped on Mapitse, bundled him into a police van and drove off to the station where he was detained.

The family member says that even though Mapitse, who was a taxi driver in the village, didn’t resist arrest, the arresting officers handcuffed and chained his legs. Hours later, the police returned to deliver the shocking news. Mpitse had reportedly committed suicide by hanging himself in a police cell with a length of tinked-back blanket stitching that had been fashioned into a rudimentary hanging rope. The other detail that would come out later was that the police had first gone to the Ward headman (not the deceased’s family) to report the death. Through an insider at the police station, the family has reportedly learnt that Mpitse, who had recently undergone an appendix surgical operation at the local hospital was “almost dead” when he arrived at the police station.Assistant Superintendent Iponeng Sejeso of the Criminal Investigations Department at the Mahalapye Police Station tells a different story.

In confirming the fight over the cellphone, he adds another detail: that the girlfriend reported that Mpitse had threatened to kill her and that when the police called at his house, he fled and subsequently tried to resist arrest when he was caught. Threat-to-kill is a very serious criminal offence and explains the leg irons. The CID boss says that Mpitse was detained early in the morning – before the shift change at 6 a.m., was given breakfast between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and that police officers found him hanging from the blanket stitching noose when they checked on him at 11 a.m. He had tied one end of the stitching rope to reinforcement steel in a window high up in his cell.

Sejeso says that he is aware of the family’s suspicions and denies any foul play occurred.“The family may not agree but what we told them is what actually happened,” he adds.

As regards why the police notified the Ward headman first and not the deceased’s family, his response is that notifying “village elders” (who include district commissioners) about deaths is standard procedure in cases of this nature. Upon conviction that Mpitse was murdered (the official cause of death is asphyxiation), his family sought the intervention of the Mahalapye East Constituency Office. According to MP Yandani Boko, the police rebuffed the family’s request to inspect the occurrence book – a record of events drawn from the diaries of police officers that is kept at a police station.

What Sunday Standard has independently established is that such inspection can only be done with either the aid of a court order or the permission of the Commissioner of Police. The family has pursued neither option, choosing to enlist the help of their MP. Boko says that he plans to write a letter to the police seeking information about what happened. He adds that the death certificate doesn’t say much and expresses desire to gain access to the more detailed post-mortem report.While his legal knowledge will certainly be useful in unravelling this issue, Boko is keen to stress that he is making this intervention not as a lawyer but an MP representing the interests of his constituents.

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