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24 S. African Police Suspended; 6 Face Murder Charges : Law enforcement: The action follows an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An internal police investigation into widespread allegations of officer misconduct has so far resulted in the suspension of 24 police officers, six of whom have been charged with murder, authorities said Wednesday.

Eleven of those suspended officers had been assigned to the Welverdiend unrest investigations unit, closed in July after a year in which 30 township youths were killed by police during questioning or street confrontations.

A dozen youths from the Welverdiend area told The Times a year ago that they had been blindfolded, given electric shocks and beaten by officers assigned to the unit. Three of those who spoke to The Times were later killed by police.

The police announcement, which confirmed reports in the local Business Day newspaper, apparently was an attempt to show that authorities are successfully investigating citizen complaints against the 80,000-member national force.

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With only a few exceptions, the government has for years resisted anti-apartheid groups’ demands that independent judicial commissions be established to investigate police misconduct. Police routinely deny most allegations, and few township residents have been willing to file formal complaints with the police about the actions of other officers.

“We have always said we will not tolerate any misconduct by members of the force,” said Maj. Ray Harrald, a police spokesman in Pretoria. “By suspending these 24 policemen, we are showing that we are serious. And we will continue to do everything in our power to get to the bottom of any police misconduct.”

But human rights lawyers said the number of police suspended was small compared to the thousands of allegations. And they renewed their calls Wednesday for independent probes into police brutality, saying that the police were incapable of conducting impartial investigations involving their colleagues.

The 24 suspensions occurred during a nine-month investigation, conducted in cooperation with the African National Congress and civil rights lawyers, according to Maj. Gen. Ronnie van der Westhuizen, who is in charge of police special investigations.

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Six officers are charged in the deaths of 11 blacks in a 1988 police raid in New Hanover, in Natal province. That case is coming to trial next month. A seventh officer has been charged with assault relating to an incident of unrest last year. The remaining 17 suspended officers have not been charged, police said.

For a year, police had strongly denied any wrongdoing by members of the Welverdiend Police Investigation Unit, a team of plainclothes riot officers stationed in a four-room house about 40 miles west of Johannesburg. Black anti-apartheid activists in the area told The Times last year that they had been routinely beaten in the interrogation rooms at the house, which they referred to as the “torture camp.”

The most notorious cases at Welverdiend involved Nixon Phiri, 16, and Eugene Mbulawa, 15, both of whom died during police questioning. Authorities blamed their deaths on epileptic seizures, but independent autopsies indicated they had been severely beaten; neither youth had a history of epilepsy.

An inquest into Phiri’s death, conducted earlier this year without his family’s lawyers present, concluded that he had died accidentally. The lone witness to Mbulawa’s death, William Makgatje, 15, described the police beatings in an interview with The Times last year. But he never got a chance to testify. He was taken into custody in May and fatally shot by police two days later, in what authorities said was an escape attempt.

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