Police, defence department settles with museum curators

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The departments of Defence as well as Safety & Security has settled with three military museum curators arrested unlawfully in January 2005 on charges relating to the passion of six “stolen” armoured vehicles and possessing firearms without the requisite permits.  



A media statement issued by law firm Webber Wentzel Bowens (WWB) says the two departments agreed to pay the curators R475 000 and legal costs.

The settlement follows a raid on the South African National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg, during which a Captain Fanie Molapo of the police and a Flight Sergeant Banda of the Military Police arrested museum director John Keene and Richard Henry, the curator of armoured fighting vehicles and of small arms “allegedly on grounds that the museum was in possession of six stolen armoured vehicles.”
Susanne Blendulf, curator of insignia, memorial plaques, postal history collections and editor of the South African Journal of Military History was arrested because she “talked too much.”
Molapo accused the Museum of being in possession of weapons without permits and refused to accept Keene`s explanation that the facility was accredited as an Official Institution which rendered it exempt from licensing in terms of the Firearms Control Act of 2000. 
He also refused to accept that it is common practice for military museums to keep weapons in a serviceable condition, particularly for study and preservation purposes, that all the small arms were lawfully possessed by the museum and were properly documented.
The curators were then handcuffed in front of journalists who had been summoned by the police and taken to Parkview police station before being speeded to Kameeldrift Police Station in Pretoria where they were held overnight in unsanitary conditions. The arrest was subsequently televised.
Molapo also prevented Keene`s attorney Barry Whitter access to Keene. The court found this “unlawful and in contravention of [Keene`s] rights in terms of section 35(2)(b) of the Constitution.
Keene had had an operation on 12 January, the day before his arrest, to repair a detached retina in his right eye. Because of ill-treatment the retina re-detached and he is now blind in the eye concerned, WWB added and the court papers show.    
Henry and Blendulf were released at the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Court on 14 January after being informed by Anil Singh, legal representative of the Departments of Arts and Culture that the State Prosecutor had declined to prosecute.
“Keene was released later in the day after completion of his eye operation. He had been kept shackled to his hospital bed. … Blendulf suffered acute post traumatic stress.
The three curators subsequently instituted action in the Gauteng North (Pretoria) High Court for damages on grounds of unlawful arrest and detention and in respect of the consequences to the health of Keene and Blendulf arising from the arrest and detention.
The matter came to trial on 4 March this year before Acting Judge Sapire.
“At the trial evidence was led on behalf of the Plaintiffs. On Henry’s evidence it was clear that the museum’s acquisition of military vehicles and artillery pieces was fully documented and accounted for and that the investigating officers had been fully apprised of this during their investigation.
“One of the more shocking pieces of evidence, amongst many, to emerge at the trial was the evidence that flight sergeant Banda had on the night of the arrest at Kameeldrift Police Station ceremoniously held up and switched off his cell phone when Keene’s attorney, Barry Whitter, had asked for his cell phone number so that he could be contactable for purposes of arranging a bail application during the course of the night of 13 January 2005.
“Another shocking piece of evidence which emerged was that the entreaties of Whitter that a district surgeon be summoned for the purposes of obtaining his consent for the administration of Keene’s medication by his wife who was present at the police station, was refused.
“In addition, Keene was kept shackled to the stretcher when taken to the Pretoria Eye Institute in the early hours of 14 January and was kept shackled to his hospital bed before and after his emergency eye operation. A police guard was posted in his ward to watch him,” the statement continues.
At the conclusion of Mr Henry’s evidence the Ministers of Safety and Security and Defence, without leading any of their witnesses, conceded liability and made a tender of settlement…”
WWB says the curators accepted the offer as tendered by the Ministers.
“More important to them than the financial aspect of the settlement as agreed, was the fact that the settlement vindicates their good names and that of the museum, establishes the unlawfulness of their arrests and vindicates the lawfulness of their actions and those of the museum.”
Sapire made a number of scathing comments regarding the conduct of the police, military police and the ministers concerned, saying he “was speaking these words deliberately in public, and that his words should be heeded.”
He observed that too many cases are coming before the Gauteng High Court where there is a lack of discretion in effecting arrests by arresting officers. He stressed that the power to arrest should be used with discretion, particularly in cases such as this, “where the plaintiffs were palpably venerable and good public citizens.”
The judge continued that there are ways of securing the attendance of an accused person in court other than arrest. In too many cases, before the Gauteng High Court the power of arrest is used as a punishment in itself and not a manner to procure attendance in court.
The judge further expressed his grave disquiet that senior people, including the ministers themselves, had not attended the proceedings in order to apprise themselves at first hand of what had happened.
The judge stressed that the people in charge of the case should have been present to see how their unilateral statements are dealt with in court and in other cases of this nature. In that way, a lot of public money could be saved. He wanted this message to go down from the highest ranking members of the police to every constable.
 
The state`s counsel informed the court he had written memoranda to the senior legal advisors of the ministers pointing out shortcomings in the investigation and suggested that the state attorney should prepare a series of lectures for arresting officers by judges.