Doctor's crusade against S African police 'licence to ill-treat': Jonathan Gluckman tells John Carlin in Johannesburg about the evidence in his post-mortem files

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The Independent Online
FOR A MAN who speaks French and Italian, whose soul yearns for the gentle civilities of Mediterranean culture, Jonathan Gluckman has chosen to dedicate his autumnal years to a curiously distasteful crusade.

He is delving into the files on the hundreds of dead bodies he has examined over the past 24 years and, as the culmination of his career before retiring to his home in Provence, he plans to publish a report exposing the barbarous treatment routinely meted out to detainees by the South African police.

Dr Gluckman, 78, rose to fame after conducting an inquest into the death of Steve Biko, the black consciousness leader who died of head injuries suffered in police custody 16 years ago. Today he is generally regarded in the medical profession as South Africa's foremost pathologist.

Adding animus to his last great mission in life, Dr Gluckman has a personal matter to resolve with the Minister of Law and Order. Last December, Hernus Kriel issued a report of his own which sought to expose Dr Gluckman as a bungler and a fraud.

That report was a response, in turn, to an interview Dr Gluckman gave the Johannesburg Sunday Times in July last year in which he alleged he had more than 200 files of post-mortems he had performed on prisoners, 90 per cent of whom, he was convinced, had been killed by the police.

The decision to go public was one of the toughest of Dr Gluckman's life. For years, ever since he came across the case of a prisoner electrocuted to death in 1969, he had harboured profound misgivings about what he calls the police's 'licence to ill-treat' - about the fact, as he claims, that every single police station in the country has equipment to administer electric shocks.

In an interview, Dr Gluckman said he had originally pursued politer channels to try to persuade the government to act. 'I wrote to President de Klerk, whom I admire very much, some eight months before the report appeared in the Sunday Times and I received a letter back in which he said he shared my concern. Then I wrote a second letter, asking him when he was going to stop this horror.'

Mr de Klerk's response was to arrange for Dr Gluckman to meet Mr Kriel, whom he furnished with detailed information on five cases that merited further investigation. He has heard nothing since, save for innuendoes from Mr Kriel that he has a political axe to grind.

'Look, I'm apolitical. All I've tried is to be a dispassionate scientist. On the day I went public my sole desire was to stop it, to stop what I had found to be the pattern of half a lifetime, people found dead in custody and no one being made responsible.'

What finally pushed Dr Gluckman over the edge was the case of Simon Mthimkhulu, a 19-year-old man from Sebokeng township found dead from multiple injuries after last being seen in police custody by a friend. Dr Gluckman found that the cause of death had been 'multiple diffuse injuries . . . including some basal fracture of the skull'. The police opened a murder investigation but, seven months on, no one has been charged.

An investigating team from Channel 4's Dispatches tracked down a boy arrested with Mthimkhulu, Lucky Boy Maseko, who recounted how the two were beaten in a toilet in a Sebokeng police station. He said Mthimkhulu had been kicked repeatedly by the police and then 'hit several times in the head with a big stone until he bled'.

Mr Kriel's response to Dr Gluckman's allegations was to order an internal inquiry, the findings of which came out in a report five months later. In essence, the report was a statistical exercise, the purpose of which was to argue that the doctor had got his figures woefully wrong and that his main purpose had been to destroy the image of the police. For example, Mr Kriel said, 14 of the people Dr Gluckman said were dead had in fact been found to be alive.

'I think that the report proves that Dr Gluckman's allegations were totally unfounded . . . I think his allegations have been totally discredited,' Mr Kriel told Dispatches, adding that the doctor had been guilty of making 'a criminal statement'. 'We've got nothing to hide,' Mr Kriel declared, who showed just how confident he was of the truth of his statement by adding that he had no intention of reopening any of the cases put forward by Dr Gluckman.

'Looking at the Kriel report,' Dr Gluckman told the Independent, 'it's obvious that the sole aim is to tear me apart. The problem itself he doesn't even address. The problem is that a philosophy has developed among the lower ranks of the police because of the knowledge that nothing will happen to them.'

Between July last year, when he went public, and December, Dr Gluckman said he had performed on average 'three to four' post-mortems a month in which he had found evidence that the police persisted in their old ways. 'But in January I had just one case. And so far this month also just the one. We're making progress.'

'Dispatches' will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight.

(Photograph omitted)