Last updated: February 28, 2013 5:01 pm

S African police watchdog probes death

a man with his hands tethered to the back of a police vehicle being dragged behind as police hold his legs up and the vehicle apparently drives off, east of Johannesburg©AP

South Africa’s police watchdog is investigating allegations that police officers in a town near Johannesburg tied a taxi driver to the back of a van and dragged him along the street before beating him to death in a cell.

The claim shines a damning spotlight on the police at a time when the country is the focus of international attention fuelled by the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic star accused of killing his model girlfriend. The police watchdog received complaints of 720 suspicious deaths in custody or in other policing action in the year to March 2012.

The death of the taxi driver was revealed by South Africa’s Daily Sun newspaper, which posted a video showing a man with his wrists either tied or handcuffed to the back of a police van. The van was driven down a street, dragging the writhing man behind it in front of a crowd.

As with the police’s shooting to death of 34 protesters during a mining strike last August in Marikana – a scene that was captured by television cameras – the latest video footage is likely to invoke memories of the abuses carried out by security forces during the decades of apartheid.

The Daily Sun, which identified the taxi driver as Mido Macia, a 27-year-old Mozambican, claimed he was approached by police for parking on the wrong side of the street in Daveyton, a township in Gauteng province.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate said the taxi driver was allegedly obstructing traffic at about 6:50pm on Tuesday, then assaulted a police officer and took his firearm. After he was overpowered he was taken to a police station and was found dead at 9:15pm. A post mortem found that the cause of death was “head injuries with internal bleeding”, and the IPID has opened a murder investigation into the death.

President Jacob Zuma has condemned the killing. “The visuals of the incident are horrific, disturbing and unacceptable. No human being should be treated in that manner,” said Mr Zuma, who directed the minister of police to investigate the matter.

Riah Phiyega, the national police commissioner, said through a spokesman that she was “deeply concerned” by the allegations. But her comments are unlikely to appease outrage at the police’s behaviour, with concerns that brutality is becoming a worrying trend. In 2011, television cameras broadcast the last moments of an unarmed protester who died in Ficksburg town after being beaten and allegedly shot with rubber bullets by police – another incident captured on television.

Lawson Naidoo, at the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a non-governmental group, said the taxi driver’s death confirmed “the culture of impunity that is prevalent in the South African police”.

“It seemed that post-Marikana there was some kind of improvement in the situation, but what we have begun to see in recent weeks is that there seems to be an escalation of this kind of behaviour once again,” Mr Naidoo said.

Most police officers are law abiding, said Moses Dlamini, IPID’s spokesman. “Those few incidents, they taint the police. However, they are not representative of the police service that we have in this country.”

The police also came under scrutiny at last week’s bail hearing for Mr Pistorius, during which it emerged that Hilton Botha, the lead detective on that investigation, was facing seven counts of attempted murder.

Those charges relate to allegations that he and two other officers fired on a mini-bus taxi in 2011. Mr Botha has denied the allegations, but is due to appear in court in May.

He was taken off the Pistorius case, in which the athlete is facing a charge of premeditated murder over the February 14 shooting and killing of Reeva Steenkamp at his home in Pretoria. The athlete has denied the charges.

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