The strange case of Judge Deon Van Zyl

7 May 2011 – TS Eliot famously wrote in his play Murder in the Cathedral that: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Jeremy Gordin writes for the Independent Weekend Newspapers.

Is it also “treason” or bad to do the wrong deed for the right reason?

I am thinking here of Judge Deon Hurter  Van Zyl, the Inspecting Judge of Prisons. What the judge has done is to liken a SA prison (Malmesbury Medium A) to a “five-star hotel”.

Van Zyl was giving evidence in the Belmarsh Magistrate’s Court, in the UK, during the extradition proceedings of Shrien Dewani. The SA authorities want to bring back Dewani to stand trial for allegedly paying for his wife, Anni, to be shot dead in the back of a “hijacked” taxi in Cape Town in November.

Dewani’s barrister has argued that it would be too dangerous for Dewani to return to a SA prison because “the facts” show that conditions in our prisons are appalling, that levels of violence are frighteningly high, and Dewani is likely to be assaulted, raped, and perhaps even killed.

Sasha Gear and Amanda Dissel, formerly of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, have suggested (on behalf of Dewani) that Dewani’s prison sentence would be equal to a death sentence because he would be raped and infected with HIV; and that if Dewani were extradited Britain would be violating its obligations under the European Convention of Human Right to prevent inhuman or degrading treatment of its citizens.

Van Zyl was called by the state, which is effectively representing SA interests, to refute this evidence. He has argued that Dewani would probably get special care and that some jails, such as Malmesbury Medium A, can even be likened to a five-star hotel.

Before we go any further, there is a misunderstanding being played out – even, it seems, in the Belmarsh Magistrate’s Court. Before Dewani is acquitted or found guilty, he will be an awaiting-trial detainee (ATD).

This means he will be in the custody of the police, not correctional services, and that he will be held in an ATD centre, not in, say, Malmesbury Medium A, which is for sentenced offenders.

Now, I don’t know whether there is a “five-star” ATD centre in Cape Town. I have not heard or read of one. But I do know that in his last annual report to the minister of correctional services, Van Zyl wrote the following on page 13: “[Awaiting-trial detainees] are [mostly] incarcerated in overcrowded cells for up to 23 hours per day, wasting away their lives. The fact that awaiting-trial detainees, who have not yet been convicted … are nevertheless detained under such inhumane conditions, creates a serious ethical dilemma which warrants urgent attention.”

And Van Zyl does not even go into detail on the “inhumane conditions”. But the Wits Justice Project (WJP) recently had a “client” who was an awaiting trialist for three years: he was regularly beaten up and once raped with a broom handle by his fellow ATDs. And following a recent visit to Johannesburg prison’s Medium A, the WJP’s Carolyn Raphaely detailed conditions for ATDs that were literally hell on earth.

Van Zyl knows all this. He also knows that the conditions for convicted prisoners, though better than for ATDs, are not even one-star. He has written the most damning report of all. He also knows, or ought to know, that the Cape has the worst gangs of all, that rape is their speciality, and that a male prisoner was recently sexually assaulted with a screw driver in the police van taking ATDs to court.

Van Zyl is generally accepted as a judge of the highest calibre and a person of the highest probity.

So why has he painted this bizarre and untrue picture of SA prison conditions? Presumably he has done so because he, like many people, including me, wants Dewani to stand trial.

But it is incorrect, even for this “good” reason, to do the wrong thing. It is also monstrously unfair to all the SA citizens languishing in our jails, especially those who have been awaiting, in appalling conditions and for years, the outcome of their trials.


About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

2 Responses to The strange case of Judge Deon Van Zyl

  1. Greg says:

    He needs to answer the charges put. Malmesbury is for the convicted, but he could be kept at Goodwood. If the authorities wish him to be here, they obviously are in a position to deviate from the norm, in order to ensure his safety.

  2. Johan van der Merwe says:

    Please also read the following : J Arthur Brown ‘raped in van’ [18/05/2008]…324497,00.html – Neither SAPS (South African Police Services) nor Prison Services could possibly control or guarantee that Shrien Dewani will not follow the same fate as J Arthur Brown.

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