WHEN the police start searching people’s houses without warrants, detain them without a charge and ignore a court order to release them, then we must be very afraid.
This is what happened to Eyob Belay Asemie, a Mosotho of Ethiopian origin, last week.
About 30 police officers ransacked his Lower Thetsane home without a search warrant.
He was then taken to the Police Headquarters and detained without a charge.
When his lawyer got a High Court order demanding his immediate release police authorities are said to have ignored it, insisting that Asemie must remain in custody until further notice.
Even when the High Court issued another order informing the police commissioner that he was in contempt of court Asemi
remained in custody. Eventually, Asemie escaped from police custody and his whereabouts are still unknown.
The police might have had genuine reasons to hold on to Asemi but it is the way they went about it that raises alarm.
Surely searching people’s houses without warrants, detaining them without a charge and ignoring court orders cannot be classified as good policing.
Asemie’s decision to escape from custody cannot be condoned but the way the police treated him must be condemned.
It raises serious questions about our police’s respect for human rights, professionalism and respect for the judiciary.
It brings into serious doubt Lesotho’s commitment to the rule of law.
In Asemi’s case, the police clearly crossed the line between policing and violating human rights.
By detaining him without a charge and ignoring court orders the police have violated the very law they are supposed to enforce. This is not the first time our police force has violated the law in their exuberance to enforce it. We have seen this and even worse behaviour from our police in the past.
We recall cases in which the Lesotho Mounted Police Service has been sued for torturing suspects during interrogation.
The courts have been told of the brutal torture methods the police have used to get confessions from suspects.
We have documented some of those horrific interrogation methods in the pages of this paper. Many of the victims have told
their stories in galling detail. More often than not the offending police officers have not been censured. They have remained on the payroll and even got promoted.
What is worrying now is that the police seems committed to continuing this modus operandi even under the new coalition
government whose partners came to power with promises of “justice for all”.
We had hoped that under the new government the police would strive to clean up its tainted image.
It was our hope that the days of police officers abusing their power and torturing people were over.
Regrettably, that hope was misplaced.
We now have more of the same old dirty deeds by our police.
Things might get even worse if the current trend is anything to go by. If Asemie, a businessman who can afford to hire a powerful lawyer, can be detained for days without charge then imagine what will happen to a poor man in Mohale’s Hoek who cannot afford a lawyer?
We must be very afraid of the future when a police force ignores court orders with impunity. We don’t know if Asemi has committed any crime but we strongly believe that nothing justifies detaining him without charge.
It’s not as if the police did not have a legal way of detaining him for longer than the prescribed 48 hours.
If they wanted to keep him for longer they could have applied to the court to extend his detention.
We suspect they did not do that because they probably did not have solid legal grounds to do so. Any court would have rejected an application based on frivolous reasons.
In their quest for justice, the police must not use unjust methods. If they continue on this dangerous path they will lose even the little goodwill they have with the public.
In the end they will have to fight the battle against crime without the community. A police force alienated from the community it seeks to serve has no chance of being effective.
They will only have themselves to blame when they start losing the battle against criminals who are committed to getting away with their deeds than the police are to doing things right.