PRETORIA (AFP) – South Africa’s police commissioner on Friday suspended eight police officers accused of dragging an immigrant taxi driver behind their patrol car and killing him, prompting an international outcry.
Commissioner Riah Phiyega said that the eight officers had been disarmed and suspended for “callous and unacceptable behaviour” and the station commander had been removed from his post pending investigation.
Twenty-seven-year-old Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia was filmed being manhandled, handcuffed and dragged by a police van through the streets to a police station east of Johannesburg.
Just over two hours later he was found dead in custody.
A post mortem found the cause of death was head injuries with internal bleeding.
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate has opened a murder investigation.
Phiyega condemned the incident and insisted it was being thoroughly investigated.
“Any one death is one too many,” she said adding that “what is in the video is not how the (South African Police Service) in a democratic South Africa goes about its work.”
“We believe in the principal of police being policed.”
South African President Jacob Zuma earlier condemned the killing as “horrific, disturbing and unacceptable”.
Footage of the incident spread quickly online, sending shockwaves through the country and put the conduct of South Africa’s much maligned police force back in the dock.
The country’s beleaguered police service has been pilloried for the shooting deaths of 34 striking miners last August.
It was also humiliated when it emerged that the officer investigating the murder case against star sprinter Oscar Pistorius himself faced charges of attempted murder for shooting at a taxi.
“They are criminals in uniform,” Bongani Hlela, a street trader based at the taxi stand where the Macia incident occurred earlier told AFP.
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate received 720 new cases for investigation of suspicious deaths in custody or in other policing contexts from April 2011 to March 2012, according to Amnesty International.
In an interview with AFP, Phiyega, who has been in the job for less than a year, rejected suggestions that the police force under her watch was lurching from crisis to crisis.
She insisted the force was regionally respected and counts more than 200,000 officers in its ranks, so such incidents are likely to arise.
“It’s a monstrous organisation, so to have these types of incidents, it’s not untoward, you will always have them,” she said.
“Because it shall always happen, the big question is how do you deal with them.”
“As and when they happen, we shall decisively and unequivocally, without doubt, deal with those.”
She also insisted that the force had not lost the trust of South Africans and had a “dedicated leadership.”
Macia’s death has also prompted a diplomatic incident with neighbouring Mozambique.
The Mozambique government said it was “outraged by what happened”.
“It is very sad that a life was lost so stupidly,” Foreign Affairs Minister Oldemiro Baloi told reporters in the capital Maputo.
“I think that whatever perspective you want to attach to it — either human or the relations between the two countries — it is absolutely unacceptable.”