South African Court Curbs Police Powers in State of Emergency

Times Staff Writer

The South African Supreme Court, in a further judicial curtailment of the government's vast powers under the six-week-old state of emergency, ruled Monday that regional police commissioners have no authority to make the legally binding regulations they have widely imposed.

The immediate effect of the precedent-setting decision will be to invalidate many of the hundreds of regulations imposed by the police under the state of emergency, such as those banning political meetings, prohibiting the wearing of anti-government badges and T-shirts, declaring night curfews, closing areas to non-residents and requiring schoolchildren to attend classes.

Under the state of emergency, violation of such regulations is punishable by 10 years in prison and a fine of about $8,000.

A three-judge panel of the Transvaal provincial branch of the country's Supreme Court ruled that President Pieter W. Botha had exceeded his authority in delegating to "any person" designated by the national police commissioner his own broad powers to make regulations enforcing the state of emergency.

The judges specifically ruled that the police commissioner in Soweto, the black satellite city southwest of Johannesburg, did not have the authority to ban meetings of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid groups that brought the lawsuit, or gatherings of a number of other political, civic, student and church organizations.

The Supreme Court here held that, under South African law, the national police commissioner, who himself is acting under authority delegated by the president, may not delegate it further.

Broad Impact Expected

This ruling is likely to have broad impact, according to lawyers following the case, because many of the emergency regulations are based on what one senior legal observer called "a veritable tree of delegated powers, with the potential for abuse growing and multiplying all the way down."

The decision follows an earlier court ruling that upheld the right of political dissent, found a government prohibition of "subversive statements" invalid because it was too vague and ordered that political detainees be granted access to their lawyers. Judges have also ordered the release of a dozen of the estimated 10,000 people who have been detained without charge under the emergency regulations, ruling in each case that the police had no reason to hold them.

Although the legality of the state of emergency itself and the validity of the basic emergency regulations have both been upheld, these repeated judicial setbacks have embarrassed the Botha government. Its adherence to the law and to the principles of fundamental justice have been brought into serious question, as has the competence of those administering the state of emergency and drafting its regulations.

Rules Revised, Withdrawn

The government has several times in the past month withdrawn or revised regulations in the face of lawsuits that, if it lost, would set broad precedents undermining the emergency regulations; a number of detainees similarly have been freed when their families have begun legal actions to secure their release.

Further lawsuits will be heard here and in other cities in the next 10 days challenging the legality of more aspects of emergency rule in a determined effort by opposition groups and civil rights lawyers to curb the broad powers the government assumed when Botha declared a nationwide state of emergency June 12.

The decision Monday has immediate effect throughout Transvaal province, and lawyers following the case said they believe that judges elsewhere will probably apply it in their decisions on similar cases.

To meet the standards laid down by the court, the government might reintroduce the invalid regulations under the national police commissioner's authority, or it might work out a legal formula that would, in fact, give regional commissioners these sweeping powers.

The government's Bureau for Information said the government will have to study the full text of the court's ruling before it can comment on its likely course of action.

8 More Blacks Killed

Eight more blacks were killed in the continuing political violence here, the Bureau for Information reported on Monday. It again asserted that the state of emergency is succeeding in restoring calm to most of the country, a claim that cannot be verified because emergency regulations prohibit firsthand reporting of any unrest.

In its daily report on the continuing unrest, the Information Bureau said that the burnt bodies of four men were found in a black township outside Port Elizabeth on Sunday evening. The bureau, the sole authorized source of news on the country's political violence, said it had no information on the men's identities or circumstances of their deaths.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World