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Monday, 18 September, 2000, 19:01 GMT 20:01 UK
SA: Row over freed convicts
Prison
South Africa's prisons are overcrowded
South African police are hunting for a group of suspected murderers and serious offenders who were mistakenly released from jail last week.

The 33, who are still at large, were among a total 18,000 inmates earmarked for release from the country's overcrowded prisons.

They were not eligible for release as they faced such charges as murder, attempted murder and rape but were freed in the Western Cape by mistake.

The release programme, which has generated controversy because South Africa has exceptionally high crime levels, is intended to relieve pressure on the country's overcrowded prisons - nearly 170,000 prisoners are crammed into jails built to hold 100,000.

Prisoner amnesty

The government stresses the release is not a prisoner amnesty, as most of those released will be on bail to face trial at a later date.

But the government suffered embarrassment when a man accused of car theft attacked a woman with a pistol and stole her car, less than 24 hours after being released.

Police caught the assailant after a high-speed chase during which they shot and wounded an accomplice.

The commissioner for correctional services, Lulamile Mbete said prison officials who freed dangerous suspects had not understood the release order.

Implications

Judge Johannes Fagan, who drew up the release order said the cabinet had known such prisoners would be freed.

"Cabinet decided that all prisoners excluding rape (suspects) should be released," he said. "Everyone knew what the implications were."

In order to ease congestion, 11,000 suspected petty offenders have been released.

The government is also to bring forward the parole dates of a further 7,000 "low-risk" prisoners.

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