HIGH-level officers in the police would be above the law, in a force "already riddled with corruption", if legislation aimed at shutting down the Scorpions was passed, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation warned yesterday.
The centre voiced its concerns in its written submission to Parliament yesterday, outlining its argument for the retention of the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO), or Scorpions as they are better known. Acknowledging that the Scorpions had some shortcomings, such as the fact that the unit was open to political pressure, the centre said these could be addressed without dissolving the unit.
It cautioned the new legislation would give the national police commissioner the power to veto investigations that did not meet his approval. This means investigations such as those into suspended police commissioner Jackie Selebi would be impossible in future. Without external investigative capacity, high -level police officials would be above the law, the centre's criminal justice programme manager, Amanda Dissel, warned.
This would make it difficult to encourage ordinary South Africans to abide by the law.
"If senior police officials in the South African Police Service (SAPS) are above the law, this also means that anyone that they wish to protect, or who is in a position to pressure or influence them, will also be shielded from justice," she told Parliament. "Respect for the law and for the institutions of government, and therefore the resilience of South African society against organised crime, can only be built if there is confidence that all South Africans are accountable before the law."
The submission relates to the proposed National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the SAPS Amendment bills, which provide for the closure of the DSO, the investigative unit in the NPA. The bills provide for the DSO's incorporation into the SAPS's newly formed Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, which will also incorporate investigators from SAPS Organised Crime Units.
Centre senior researcher David Bruce said in the submission: "The SAPS is already riddled with corruption and is very bad at addressing the issue. The problem is likely to get worse as a result of the closure of the Scorpions. This in turn will feed into a worsening of organised and other crime."
Also, Bruce said, closure of the Scorpions would have a negative influence on the culture and ethics of law enforcement.
"One of the lessons that will be internalised throughout the law-enforcement community is that those who subject high-level political and government officials to investigative scrutiny will be punished for this, further contributing to the impunity of officials from the exercise of the law," he said.
The centre said that the disbanding of the Scorpions would do nothing to lessen the effects of political pressure. It was more likely to accentuate the problem and likely to undermine the legitimacy and public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Dissel said the creation of the DSO, as an independent investigative unit, was seen as a step forward, creating more investigative diversity.
"The moves to close the DSO are taking us back to the centralised policing system of apartheid SA," she said.
In Business Day, 24 July 2008.