R' 000 for tourists police locked up in error

Two tourists from the UK, who were mistakenly arrested for being in possession of a stolen car and locked in a cell for a day under harrowing conditions, will each receive R90 000 in damages from the police. 

Ian Murrell and Siyananiso Mashava were travelling in a rented vehicle that was later found to have been stolen but not recorded as having been recovered.  In police records the car remained listed as a stolen vehicle.

 After a minor accident while travelling towards Zimbabwe, the two showed the police car rental agreement papers, and the car rental agency confirmed it had hired the vehicle.  But the police thought they might be part of an international car theft syndicate and locked them up.

 Initially they each claimed R550 000 in damages from the police, but Pretoria High Court Acting Judge Jody Kollapen said that in the circumstances R90 000 each was a fair amount. 

The two, who live in Britain, arrived in South Africa on holiday on August 14, 2007.  They hired a car from Avo Car Rental and headed for Zimbabwe. At the Ultra City near Beit Bridge, the vehicle was involved in a minor collision. Although it suffered no damage, they reported the incident to the nearby police station. 

The police checked the status of the car and found it to be “stolen”, arrested them and took them to the holding cells in Musina, where they were held overnight and released unconditionally the following day. 

Murrell said he was held in a cell with 20 other inmates under trying conditions. The toilet was unusable and he had no food or water.  He shared a sleeping space with a self-confessed murderer and offered money and cigarettes in return for protection.  The court heard he spent 11 hours in a confined and intimidating space, anxious, bewildered and unable to sleep. 

Mshava had the same story to tell. She had sat up against the wall for 11 hours. 

The police maintained it could not be excluded the two were part of a smuggling syndicate.  But the judge pointed out that they had approached the police, shown them documentation relating to the rental and had not even been in the country when the car had been stolen. He said it was difficult to contemplate how someone placed in possession of these facts could suspect the two of car theft. 

The judge said there was little doubt their experience had been traumatic. “At one point they were carefree holidaymakers exploring the beauty and splendour of our remarkable country and within an hour they were rendered criminals and confined to cells where conditions fell shockingly short of the constitutional imperative.” 

The police’s excuse that they lacked resources was unconvincing.

Source: www.pretorianews.co.za, 20100303

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