A coroner's inquest has accused the Royal Swaziland Police Force of torture and neglect in a case that has highlighted human rights groups' concerns over the treatment of suspects in custody.
Mandla Ngubeni died in June 2004 after the police interrogated him over the disappearance of R28,000 (US $4,666) from his place of employment. Coroner Magistrate Lorraine Hlope, in a report presented to Prime Minister Themba Dlamini, concluded that Ngubeni had been tortured under questioning.
"From the evidence gathered, I find that the deceased, Mandla Ngubeni, was suffocated by the police interrogating him", the report said, although it was not established that his death was due to suffocation alone. The official cause of death was initially given as heart failure.
The inquest's findings were turned over to the Acting Director of Public Prosecutions, Mumsy Dlamini, for possible action against six police detectives involved in Ngubeni's interrogation.
The Swazi police have always denied reports of abuse, describing them as unsubstantiated allegations made by criminals. But Amnesty International and the US State Department, in their annual human rights reports, have noted that torture was routinely used to elicit information or induce confessions, and called on the government to stop the practice.
The inquest into Ngubeni's death followed a public outcry in response to photos of his body carried by a local newspaper, which showed bleeding welts and bruises incurred from some kind of beating while in police custody.
The inquest also faulted the police for failing to give Ngubeni medical assistance. They took his body to a morgue in Manzini, 35 km east of the capital, Mbabane, presuming him dead. Morgue workers detected signs of life and sent him to the city hospital, where attempts to revive him failed.
When reached for comment, Superintendent Vusie Masuku, public relations officer for the Royal Swaziland Police Force, told IRIN: "We have to read and analyse the inquest's findings before commenting - but the law must take its course. It is up to the director of public prosecutions, now. We are awaiting his directives."
Some Swazi attorneys felt the inquest gave credence to charges of police torture. "The independent investigation was significant. That it did its work unhindered, and turned the matter over to prosecutors, is a good step in fighting abuses and corruption in Swaziland," said a source at the Swaziland Law Society.