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Tuesday, April 20, 1999 Published at 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK

World: Africa

Police suspended over BBC film

Police are struggling to cope with high levels of crime

Six South African police officers have been suspended from their jobs after a BBC film showed them beating up suspects.

Watch the exclusive BBC video footage
The film, aired on Newsnight, was dramatic evidence of thuggery in the South African police service, which is struggling to cope with high levels of crime in the wake of the country's transition to democracy.

The police authorities allowed the work of the Brixton flying squad in Johannesburg to be filmed over four weeks.

The result was a series of extremely disturbing images.

In one piece of footage police officers arrest two suspected car thieves, handcuff them, and then while the men are on the ground they kick them in the face and set a police dog on them.

One has a cigarette stubbed out on his head.

Sucked into violence

BBC Correspondent Jeremy Vine says the police are being sucked into the violence they are supposed to be fighting.

Jeremy Vine explains the background to the filming
And the violence is endemic. Since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, 1,000 police officers have been murdered.

Flying Squad Inspector Jorrie Jordan says there are five or six killings per shift in Johannesburg, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

"We're looking at hijackings, 30 a day, if not more. I remember at one stage we were averaging 107 stolen cars a day in Joburg which is phenomenal - it's like, maybe it's a good idea of leaving the police force and opening up motor dealership.

'Acute government concern'

Footage on another occasion showed two hijackers who had been badly injured in a car crash kicked and struck with a rifle butt.

The scenes, which went on even though a camera was obviously present, may reflect the strains of the job as police officers try to combat the violent crime that is causing acute concern at every level of Nelson Mandela's government.

[ image: A police dog was set on the men]
A police dog was set on the men
Psychiatrist David Sheval who treats mainly policemen says he is not surprised that some become violent.

"The most common cause I think is just really the frequent recurrent exposure to violence - they find themselves in life-threatening situations," he said.

"Just to investigate and see the amount of corpses, rapes and armed robberies - that's certainly enough to cause severe stress in anybody."

'Shocked and horrified'

A prominent lawyer who campaigns for the police to become more accountable was appalled by the BBC footage.

Campaigning lawyer Mohammed Hussein: Horrified by the images
Mohammed Hussein of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers said: "I am absolutely shocked and horrifed at what I've seen."

"What needs to happen is action on a multi-faceted front; I think those officers responsible clearly must be brought to book."

He added: "One needs to address what I perceive as a systemic problem in the way the police force handles violations of the law - and one needs to change the mindset of the police so they have a greater respect for human rights."

The six policemen who have been suspended as a result of the film now face criminal prosecution.

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