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Khulumani welcomes the 4 October 2013 Launch of the MSF Dr Neil Aggett Unit to engage health professionals in addressing the social determinants of health

Khulumani Support Group honours the memory and legacy of Dr Neil Aggett as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) launches its Dr Neil Aggett Unit with a commemorative seminar at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Medical School on Friday, October 4 from 08:30 – 15:30. The seminar will focus on the potential roles of health professionals as agents of change in Africa. (Programme is attached.)

Dr Neil Aggett worked as a trade union organizer and helped to set up what has become the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU). He supported his unpaid work as a union organizer by working as a casualty doctor at Baragwanath Hospital at night, up until his detention and death in apartheid police custody in 1982 after a prolonged period of solitary confinement and torture. FAWU has expressed its appreciation of the life and example of Neil whom it calls one of the finest citizens of our country – a selfless medical doctor and a committed trade unionist – ever to emerge from our struggles. 

In this year in which Neil Aggett would have turned sixty, and after more than ten years delay, the South African Parliament passed the Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act. In July 2013, the President assented to the Act. This means that the country is now compliant with its obligation to the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT), an international treaty that was ratified by the South African government in December 1998, the year in which the Human Rights Hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were concluded.

Khulumani Support Group honours the memory and legacy of Dr Neil Aggett as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) launches its Dr Neil Aggett Unit with a commemorative seminar at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Medical School on Friday, October 4 from 08:30 – 15:30. The seminar will focus on the potential roles of health professionals as agents of change in Africa. (Programme is attached.)

Dr Neil Aggett worked as a trade union organizer and helped to set up what has become the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU). He supported his unpaid work as a union organizer by working as a casualty doctor at Baragwanath Hospital at night, up until his detention and death in apartheid police custody in 1982 after a prolonged period of solitary confinement and torture. FAWU has expressed its appreciation of the life and example of Neil whom it calls one of the finest citizens of our country – a selfless medical doctor and a committed trade unionist – ever to emerge from our struggles.

In this year in which Neil Aggett would have turned sixty, and after more than ten years delay, the South African Parliament passed the Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act. In July 2013, the President assented to the Act. This means that the country is now compliant with its obligation to the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT), an international treaty that was ratified by the South African government in December 1998, the year in which the Human Rights Hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were concluded.

The Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act criminalises torture and provides for the prosecution of those who perpetrate torture – an advance on the mere prohibition of torture that was provided for in the 1996 Constitution. Sadly the Act omits any provision for redress for victims and survivors of torture, despite sustained advocacy during the many parliamentary hearings on the Bill by the organisations involved in the provision of psychosocial rehabilitation services for torture survivors, the member organisations of SANToC (the South African No Torture Consortium). These are Khulumani Support Group, the Centre for the Study of Violence and reconciliation, the Trauma Centre for Victims of Torture and Violence, the Institute for the Healing of Memories and the Solidarity Peace Trust. The Act thus fails to meet the objectives of Article 14 of UNCAT which provides for rehabilitation and redress for torture victims and survivors.

Presidential Assent to the Act comes at a time when a broad coalition of organisations including the Neil Aggett Support Group and Khulumani Support Group are calling for the prosecution of the torturers of Dr Neil Aggett, whose death was identified as an ‘induced suicide’ at the judicial inquest that followed his death. This matter has been referred by the Minister of Justice to the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit for further investigation. Neither of the torturers of Dr Aggett applied for amnesty at the TRC, leaving them vulnerable to prosecution.

Shockingly, the prevalence of torture has increased since the dawn of democracy in South Africa. The Annual Report of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) released on 1 October 2013 reveals a 19% increase in deaths in police custody over the past year and an increase of 218% in cases of assault perpetrated by the police in the same period. These are alarming figures that reveal the extent to which torture at the hands of the police has become normalized with increasing numbers of innocent people becoming victims of torture simply through the mishap of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In remembering and honouring the activism of Dr Neil Aggett, we commit to working together to eradicate torture in South Africa and to prosecute those guilty of its perpetration, starting with the torturers of Dr Neil Aggett.

It is time to end the impunity of torturers, to demand greater enforcement of legislative provisions to protect all people from torture and to intensify lobbying for rehabilitation and for compensation for all survivors of torture.

We join the Neil Aggett Support Group and Doctors without Borders (MSF) in committing to the goal of a torture-free society.

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