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SOWETAN | Teen’s arrest uncalled for

A 15-year-old child was wrongly detained by Hilbrow police in Johannesburg after she could not prove that she was not an illegal alien
A 15-year-old child was wrongly detained by Hilbrow police in Johannesburg after she could not prove that she was not an illegal alien

The arrest and detention of a 15-year-old girl from Hillbrow by police on suspicion of being an illegal migrant has raised several concerning issues, including how police exercise their power.

The teenager was bundled into the back of a police van and locked up with adults for at least an hour before her father could come with her birth certificate to prove she was South African.

The grade 9 pupil, however, alleged to this publication that police who demanded to see her documentation proving her status in the country ignored her pleas to contact her parents. She also said they ignored her while she attempted to explain that she was a minor and did not have an ID.

The SA Human Rights Commission has since launched a probe into the circumstances surrounding her arrest and detention. According to the commission, although police can lawfully demand proof of documents from anyone when there is reasonable ground of suspicion, the application of the law in the girl’s case was concerning.

This is because the process outlined in the immigration act requires that steps such as contacting relatives who could prove or verify status of the person be undertaken.  While police on Tuesday defended their action, insisting they acted on reasonable grounds when arresting the teen, there were further questions.

First, police failed to balance the rights of the minor to not be detained except as a measure of last resort as protected by the constitution and their duty to prevent and investigate a crime. By ignoring the child’s plea to call her parents until she used a fellow detainee’s phone inside the holding cells as alleged, police ought to have known that this was a flagrant violation of her rights.

There were no sufficient grounds to warrant her detention even though police claim she was taken to the police station because she was allegedly uncooperative.

Second, there appears to be a grey area as to what constituted reasonable grounds for an arrest in this case. If the officers believed the teenager could be a foreign national by simply looking at her, what distinct physical characteristics could have been relied upon to distinguish foreigners from South Africans?

If anything, this case demonstrates a lack of understanding by the police of their legal obligations and more importantly when dealing with minors.

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