Nine South African police officers pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of killing a man who died after being dragged behind their van, according to news reports.
The police officer driving the vehicle said he was unaware of what was happening to the man when he began pulling away from an agitated crowd, according to Agence France-Presse.The death of Mido Macia last week outraged South Africans after a video was posted online by the Daily Sun tabloid. The video showed the Mozambican man resisting police who prodded him toward their van, then secured his raised hands to the back of the vehicle amid a crowd of onlookers.
The van then drove away, dragging Macia behind it. He was found dead at the police station several hours later, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate watchdog agency, which said Macia had died of head injuries and internal bleeding.
At the hearing Friday, police driver Lungisa Ewababa said he started driving after one of the vehicle windows was broken in the commotion, and didn’t realize Macia was being dragged until another officer told him, the South African Press Assn. reported. The officers then put the man inside the vehicle and drove to the police station, Ewababa reportedly said.
SAPA reported that an attorney for another of the nine accused officers read a statement saying that Macia had grabbed a gun from another officer and pointed it at them before handing it back. The minibus driver had been blocking the road before the scuffle, the officer said.
"I asked him to move and he insulted me and told me I am a useless cop," the statement from Thamsanqa Ncema said, according to SAPA. Macia then grabbed the gun, he said.
"I was caught by surprise to be told that the person had died, as he has never complained about any injuries," the statement from Ncema said.
A bail hearing for the nine officers was postponed until Monday. All nine pleaded not guilty to murder charges, Reuters reported.
Photos from outside the courtroom showed protesters holding signs, pleading for the officers not to be released. One sign photographed by the Agence France-Presse said, "What have we done to die like dogs?"
Macia died at a time when South African police were already under fire for alleged misconduct: As the global spotlight turned to the murder charge against Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, the lead detective in the trial was taken off the case after it was revealed that he and other police officers had been charged with seven counts of attempted murder for firing at a minibus in an effort to stop it.
Months earlier, the fatal shootings of dozens of striking miners set off a debate about police brutality in the country. As mourners gathered Wednesday to remember Macia, some spoke emotionally about the policing of their neighborhoods.
"The police are used to terrorizing people here in the township, especially the Ethiopians and Mozambicans," Sonnyboy Ndlovu, who witnessed the dragging incident, told Reuters.
The Democratic Alliance opposition party criticized two top police officials Wednesday for not being present for questioning by South African lawmakers during “the latest crisis.”
“This at a time when South Africa is reeling from horrific reports of police brutality,” said Dianne Kohler Barnard, a member of Parliament from the Democratic Alliance. She earlier called for the president to create a commission of inquiry on police violence.
South African police said the two ministers were absent on official business and that another official was answering questions. It called her statements “sensational and generalizing,” arguing it was “a misleading depiction as though all 200,000 plus SAPS members are brutal.”
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate, which investigates accusations against police officers in South Africa, said Wednesday that its last annual report recorded 720 deaths of people either in police custody or as a result of police action from April 2011 to March 2012, a decrease from the previous year but “still unacceptably high.”