Twelve members of Abahlali baseMjondolo - a shackdwellers movement based in Durban - brought to trial on spurious charges ranging from public violence to murder, were acquitted today in the Durban Regional Court.
The activists were prosecuted in the aftermath of the attacks on Abahlali's members residing in the Kennedy Road Informal Settlement on 27 and 28 September 2009.
Abahlali members were evicted from the settlement by an armed gang associated with the local branch of the African National Congress (ANC) while the police looked on.
This attack was widely seen as a punishment for Abahlali's criticism of state-sponsored unlawful evictions and its Constitutional Court challenge to the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums Act ('Slums Act'). Parts of this Act were declared unconstitutional in a judgment handed down shortly after the attacks at Kennedy Road.
After the attacks, Abahlali called for the members of the gang to be brought to justice.
Instead, after a highly politicised police investigation, Abahlali's members were themselves arrested and charged. The charges were based on evidence which now appears almost certainly to have been manufactured.
Magistrate Sharon Marks today dismissed all of the charges against the activists after she labelled the state's witnesses "belligerent", "unreliable" and "dishonest".
Magistrate Marks found that, while she had no doubt that violence had taken place in the Kennedy Road informal settlement in late September 2009, there was no evidence that the Abahlali activists had been responsible.
She expressed disquiet that police identity parade witnesses had been coached to point out members of an Imfene dance group closely associated with Abahlali - rather than anyone who had been seen perpetrating any of the violence.
SERI, together with Trudie Nicholls Attorneys in Durban, provided legal representation to the activists brought to trial.
Jackie Dugard, SERI's Executive Director, said after the verdict:
"It has been clear for some time that the Kennedy Road accused were charged not because they had done anything wrong, but because they were associated with Abahlali. Today's verdict is a complete vindication of Abahlali. It raises worrying questions about police complicity in attempts to repress Abahlali's legitimate and lawful activities on behalf of poor and vulnerable people living in informal settlements across South Africa.
SERI has long been concerned about the police repression of peaceful political action in townships and informal settlements. That is why it was absolutely essential that we assist the accused in this case. We now call upon the police to launch a full and proper investigation into the attacks on Abahlali and to bring the real perpetrators of the violence to justice".
See http://www.abahlali.org/taxonomy/term/1775 for more on the trial.